In mid-November last year, the Australian Productivity Commission released the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report, which described Australia’s ongoing failings in dealing with the problems that continue to afflict Australia’s Aboriginal population — in particular, Australia’s appalling rate of Aboriginal imprisonment.

Twenty-seven years ago, Australia launched the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It took four years to investigate 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody across Australia. Early on, its terms of reference were widened to address what was immediately realised, and which founded the shameful backdrop of the deaths: the then-grossly disproportionate Aboriginal imprisonment rate. So the terms of reference were widened to investigate all relevant aspects including history, economics, education, health and justice, which eventually led to 399 recommendations designed to address what was considered then to be the shamefully disproportionate Aboriginal imprisonment rate.

Their purpose was to halt that disproportion and reduce it. That was in 1991. The disgraceful statistics since then disturbingly illuminate just how shameful the position is today.

In 1991, as now, Aboriginal people constituted just under 3% of the Australian population. In the Northern Territory, as now, Aboriginal people made up about 30% of the NT’s population. Nationally, in 1991 the figures concerning Aboriginal imprisonment were:

  • 14% of the Australian prison population was Aboriginal; and
  • 69% of the NT prison population was Aboriginal.

In Australia, in 2014-15, well after the implementation of all 399 recommendations by all state and territory governments, the national figures on Aboriginal imprisonment are:

  • 28% of Australia’s prison population is Aboriginal (doubled); and
  • In the NT, 86% of the prison population is Aboriginal.

The figures for Aboriginal women and juveniles are even more regressive:

  • In the NT, between 2002 and 2012, Aboriginal women’s imprisonment increased by 72%; and
  • 97% of juveniles presently jailed in the NT are Aboriginal.

The NT imprisonment statistics are staggering and beggar belief; in the past 10 years, those numbers have increased by 70%.

The NT per capita adult imprisonment rate is four to five times higher than any other state or territory. Its imprisonment rate for juveniles is six times higher than any other state or territory.

Of interest in the comparison is New Zealand (161 incarcerations per 100,000 population), England (148), Scotland (132), Canada (118), and Holland (82). The NT imprisonment rate is 843 per 100,000 population. This jurisdiction jails more people per capita than any country in the world.

These statistics are real and they confirm what is clearly a national crisis and disgrace. They can’t be published enough and need to be broadcast and emblazoned across Australia. They are a continuum, and are now regressing at an ever-increasing pace.

No one needs to be a statistician to see the projection as to where this is going and what the end game is. This disastrous situation was confirmed and amplified by the 2014 Productivity Commission Report, which informed Australians that nationally, Aboriginal juveniles are imprisoned at 24 times the rate of non-Aboriginal juveniles. Further, there had been a 74% increase in the national imprisonment rate of Aboriginal women since 2000.

The report also recorded that one in four deaths in custody was an Aboriginal person, compared with one in seven at the time of the 1991 royal commission.

The reality of life in the Northern Territory is that, along with cyclones and crocodiles, Aboriginal men, women and children behind bars are the real and true life symbol of this part of Australia. This is where we continue to regress, rapidly. And this horror doesn’t come cheap.

Gulag NT spends more money per capita on police and corrections than any other Australian jurisdiction. It costs $100,000 per year to house each adult prisoner, and $200,000 for each juvenile. The present CLP government has just opened its new super-jail (originally commissioned by the previous Labor government) at a cost of $1 billion-plus.

The Attorney-General has said it will ultimately cost the taxpayer $1.8 billion and take 30 years to pay off. It is the largest NT government outlay for a capital works project. Meanwhile, the present government regularly makes significant cuts to education and health services.

Of course, the question to be asked is: how can Australia, sitting up there at the top of the United Nations Human Development Index tables on well-being and wealth, allow this situation to occur? Why does Australia continue to fail at such gross levels?

As a criminal lawyer working in the NT for over 25 years, I have watched and been directly involved in this regression. One reason is that over the past 20 years, all Australian governments, pursuant to vote-winning “tough on crime” populism, have legislated to change their criminal justice systems in order to obtain more criminal convictions and resultant prison sentences. Consequently, as intended, more people have been found guilty by our courts and more people have been sentenced to jail, and for longer periods.

This increase in imprisonment has cost the community a fortune without a reductive effect on crime levels. In fact, in the same period, serious crime levels, namely assaults and sexual assaults, have increased. This punitive increase in imprisonment has predictably impacted on Aboriginal men, women and children more than any other sector of the community. This obvious consequence was known to all politicians who brought in these changes to our criminal justice systems.

Politicians will argue they are merely following the will of the people and protecting the victims of crime. But surely pandering to this will is shallow and ultimately self-defeating. We’ve got nowhere, the cost has been exorbitant and the situation continues in rapid decline.

Ultimately, history will judge First World Australia as to how it fared in dealing with its Aboriginal inhabitants. It will inevitably do so by comparing it with other First World countries which faced the same challenge — like Canada, New Zealand and some South American countries.

Where will Australia sit compared with others in that comparative table?

This is an edited version of an article first published in the January 2015 edition of Land Rights News (Northern Edition), a publication of the Northern Land Council. Read the full text at The Northern Myth.