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Campaign for Justice Reinvestment for Aboriginal Young People (2012)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Campaign for Justice Reinvestment for Aboriginal Young People

Mick Gooda
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

NSW Government House, Sydney

Wednesday 2 May 2012


I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal Peoples of the Eora Nations. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

I am a Gangulu person from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland and when I speak to my Elders, they ask me to pass on my salutations to the Traditional Owners of the land I visit for their continued fight for their country and their culture.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this launch of the Campaign for Justice Reinvestment for Aboriginal Young People.

Can I particularly acknowledge:

  • Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC, CVO Governor of NSW
  • Dr Tom Calma
  • Professor Chris Cunneen
  • Mr Bob Debus AM
  • Professor Mick Dodson AM
  • Ms Marcia Ella Duncan
  • Mr Jack Manning-Bancroft
  • Mr Shane Phillips and
  • Professor Ted Wilkes

who have also agreed to be champions of the Campaign.

Justice Reinvestment

I don’t want to list a whole stack of statistics today, apart to say that more than 21 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, it is shameful that the overrepresentation of our people in jails is getting worse, not better.

I am sure we are all aware of the current situation. Many of you work with individuals who are in and out of the criminal justice system. Their stories are more powerful than all the statistics on record in painting a picture of a criminal justice system that is failing to meet the rehabilitative and re-integrative needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders, their families and communities.

To me, one of the most concerning issues about the increasing incarceration rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is the reasons why people are being put in jail.

Let me use driving offences as an example. The laws regarding driving offences are the same for all Australians but their impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is profound.

In 2004, Aboriginal prisoners accounted for 64% of all prisoners going into jail for a driving offence in Western Australia. Many of the driving offences relate to suspended driving licenses, often as a consequence of unpaid fines. However, with no public transport in remote locations, people who have lost their driving licenses are stuck between a rock and a hard place when they still have to travel for court attendances, medical appointments, cultural business etc.   

Again in Western Australia we have seen the tragic results of this sort of discrimination. Mr Ward died in the back of a corrections van after being charged with a drink driving offence. I think we need to ask ourselves, why was Mr Ward in the back of that van in the first place? If it were you or I, living in a major city, we would have been charged and released for a similar offence in a matter of hours. Instead, Mr Ward was subject to the most inhumane treatment, transported nearly 1000 kms in searing heat in the back of a van with no air conditioning.

And of course, if we are talking about minor offences leading to police custody and tragedy, it is impossible to ignore the case of Mr Doomadgee who was arrested for causing a public nuisance but tragically died of his injuries in custody on Palm Island.

Again, as we reflect on the 21 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody it is a shocking indictment on the implementation of this report that we are still seeing these sorts of deaths take place.

Looking at these experiences, we can see that there is a lot of work that needs to take place to reduce the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people entering the criminal justice system because of minor offences. 

Some of the things that could easily be done are simple responses. For example, when someone is issued with a fine a process could be established that sets up a direct debit from that person’s account to pay the fine. This would avoid warrants being issued – and the consequential incarceration – for the non-payment of fines.

Governments need to show that they are serious about doing something to reduce the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We’ve had enough talk about this issue – words are hollow without action.

Last year, a parliamentary report was released about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and the criminal justice system, aptly called, ‘Doing Time: Time for Doing’.  And it certainly is time for doing.

One of the things this report recommends, and something that we have been calling for at the Australian Human Rights Commission, is justice targets to be included in the Closing the Gap Strategy and considered in the development of the National Health Action Plan as a social determinant.

I don’t think you can be serious about addressing Indigenous disadvantage if you neglect to address one of the biggest areas of inequality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  By committing to justice targets, we can get all governments on side and make them accountable for the sustained improvement in the way the criminal justice system works with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But targets are only the first step. If we are serious about improving this situation, positive action needs to be combined with engagement and respect.

This is where I think justice reinvestment comes in. Many of you will be familiar with justice reinvestment from my predecessor, Dr Tom Calma, who reported on this topic in the Social Justice Report in 2009.

Justice reinvestment reorientates the criminal justice system to prevention rather than detention and concentrates on investing resources into communities where there are high concentrations of offenders. But justice reinvestment is also a tool for community engagement in crime prevention.

The way I see it, governments identify the high stakes communities and then work intensively with the communities to look at why crime is occurring and what they think can be done to address it. Governments and communities identify what cultural resources – like Elders and community justice groups –can be utilised and ultimately develop a funded plan to tackle crime.

This might mean more money for substance abuse or mental health programs, it might mean improving the way Elders and community justice groups work with courts, it might mean trialling new ways to deal with things like driving offences, or it might mean healing programs. But the bottom line is that the outcomes will be generated by the community in partnership with the government. This way of working is what will lead to better relationships and better criminal justice outcomes.

Governments in the United States who have embraced justice reinvestment have realised that prison is just not good value for money. Prisons do not significantly reduce crime and building new prisons will only increase the number of people entering them. There is a very high recidivism rate so people are cycling in and out of the system at high cost to the tax payer.

In the United States they have found there are ‘million dollar blocks’, where literally millions are spent on imprisoning people from specific disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Imagine if instead of imprisoning all these people, weakening the community further, some were diverted from prison and the money that would have been spent on locking them up is then put into crime prevention and community building programs.

In relation to the criminal justice system in Australia, I think there are already some good programs under way. In Victoria there is a concerted effort to mediate community disputes to prevent violence from escalating. The Tiwi have long been running a Youth Diversion Program that resolves community disputes.  These types of projects give people the tools to resolve disputes before they result in violence.

The Queensland Justice Agreement – Just Futures 2012-2015 – commits to working in partnership with our people to develop new approaches to the criminal justice system such as justice reinvestment.

Justice Reinvestment for Aboriginal Young People campaign

So now is the perfect time for NSW to look at justice reinvestment.

In NSW, Aboriginal young people make up 2.2% of the general population but more than 50% of young people in detention. Indigenous young people are 28 times more likely to be placed in juvenile detention than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

We are losing a whole generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. The current approach is not working and it’s time to create a new way.

And that is why this campaign to reduce the shameful over-representation of Aboriginal young people in custody is so important.

The Justice Reinvestment for Aboriginal Young People Campaign is calling on the NSW Government to shift policy and spending away from incarceration towards prevention, early intervention and treatment for Aboriginal young people. The Campaign is calling on the NSW Government to:

  • adopt a policy of justice reinvestment, and
  • establish an independent Justice Reinvestment Advisory Group to oversee the implementation of justice reinvestment and monitor outcomes for Aboriginal young people.

This Campaign brings together a coalition of like-minded people and organisations in support of justice reinvestment. I have been asked to name the Working Group Members of the Campaign, who include:

  • Sarah Hopkins, Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT)
  • Siobhan Bryson, Weave Youth and Family Community (Waterloo/Redfern)
  • Brad Freeburn, Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service & National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee (NIDAC)
  • Anne Cregan, Blake Dawson Lawyers
  • Gino Vumbaca, Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD)
  • Lynette Simpson, Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Network
  • Kerry Graham
  • Anne Wickham, Boxing Clever Pty Ltd
  • Jane Sanders, Shopfront Youth Legal Centre, Youth Justice Coalition
  • Lana Shaw, Aboriginal Assertive Outreach Neami & Weave YFC Advocate

I thank the members of this Group for their commitment to the Campaign and to reducing the number of Aboriginal young people in custody.


In conclusion, I want to say that we are the oldest surviving culture in the world. When I look around our families and communities I see so much resilience and hope.

Let’s use this resilience and hope to frame our responses – to work in partnership – to reduce incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to improve the responses from the criminal justice system for all of our people.

[1] Law Reform Commission of Western Australia, Aboriginal Customary Laws Final Report (2006), p 93. At (viewed 4 April 2012).The interaction of WA law with Aboriginal law and cult

[2] Australian Government Productivity Commission, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: key indicators (2009). At (viewed 3 April 2012).

Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner