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Policing Partnerships: How Justice Reinvestment works with Aboriginal communities

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

NSW Police Seminar:
Policing Partnerships: How Justice Reinvestment works with Aboriginal communities


It is with respect and gratitude that I acknowledge that we sit today on the traditional owners of the land where we sit down today.

My people are the Gangulu from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland. We all have Elders so on behalf of my Elders I also pay tribute to your Elders, both past and present, for their continued struggle for their country and their culture.

It is with great pleasure that I come here today to speak with you and it is wonderful to be in a room full of senior police, so can I acknowledge all of you and pay particular respect to Commissioner Scipione and Deputy Commissioner Burn.

I want to start by giving you a brief outline of this position that I currently occupy the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Social Justice Commissioner.

2013 marks the 20th year since this position came into being as a result of the Native Title Act, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and a HREOC Inquiry into racial hatred.

Professor Mick Dodson was the first followed by Dr Bill Jonas, Dr Tom Calma and Ms Zita Antonios. When I first started in this position I was asked if any of these previous Commissioners had left any words of advice. I tell them ‘no’ but they all left really big shoes to fill. So it is with some trepidation and a big dose of humility that I began my work knowing that the bar has been set fairly high. What was going to be my agenda, my plan for these five years?

To begin with I have some statutory duties. I’m required to provide to the Australian Parliament an annual Social Justice Report and I also provide a report on Native Title. I’m also required to:

  • review the impact of laws and policies with regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • promote an Indigenous perspective on issues and
  • monitor the enjoyment and exercise of human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians

But in a real sense, I’m handed these general directions and it’s up to me to sort out my priorities in terms of how I do what the legislation requires of me.

As Social Justice Commissioner I have only six staff, so I quickly realised that it would be unrealistic to pick even one of the myriad of challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - housing, health, education to name a few and expect to fix it by January 2015.

I believe that fixing these issues will require the intergenerational commitment of the whole nation.

So I travelled extensively and spoke with and listened to many individuals and communities across Australia: in urban, regional and remote settings.

I heard many stories and witnessed many things in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that are heartbreaking and disturbing – particularly given that we live in one of the richest, most successful democracies in the world. It is simply unacceptable that Australia’s first peoples are the most vulnerable of our healthy, prosperous nation.

But I was also humbled by the many stories of resilience and hope. I witnessed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities working hard to raise the bar and not accept the status quo. I also met with many non-Indigenous people and organisations that are behind us all the way – people who want to walk and work with us to improve the life chances for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia.

At the centre of my priorities is the belief that we need to firstly develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australia.

Secondly, we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all levels of government.

And, perhaps even more importantly, we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between ourselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Relationships are built on understanding, dialogue, tolerance, acceptance, respect, trust and reciprocated affection.

Relationships are destroyed by misunderstanding, intolerance, and a lack of acceptance, a lack of dialogue, mistrust and a lack of respect.

Today I want to speak specifically about the relationship between the Police and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, about how Police can work better with us and of course how we can work better with Police. I keep on saying that fixing these relationships cannot be a one way street, there has to be give and take from both sides, this is how mature relationships are built.

To say this relationship is fraught with negative connotations is somewhat of an understatement. As the saying goes, there is some history here. Police are nearly always at the pointy end of.

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is being able to meet with people from all walks of life about how we can achieve more for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I come from the perspective of recognising strengths- in communities, organisations and individuals-as the building blocks for these achievements.

And I am aware of some fine achievements of the NSW Police force aimed at improving relations and outcomes with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. I understand your Aboriginal Strategic Direction has made progress.  There are also many dedicated officers, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Police Officers and ACLOs, who do a very difficult job with little recognition.

When I think of how things have improved I am reminded of last year when there was that shooting in Kings Cross of those two young Aboriginal men. I live in Surry Hills and the tension in places like Redfern was palpable. In years gone by we have seen riots as a result of incidences such as this. However, this time was different.  The relationship between the Indigenous community of Redfern and police has been building for some time. Deputy Commissioner Burn started the process of respectful engagement and it continues with Commander Luke Freudenstein.

Within three days of that incident Luke, Mickey Mundine, Shane Phillips, Michael Parkin and I were having coffee in a café in Abecrombie Street, with Mickey being rightly indignant about those young men being identified as coming from Redfern. I remember thinking this is a far cry from the events of a few years before which saw the Indigenous community in a pitched battle with the police.   

But, as I am sure you would all agree, there are still some challenges that the NSW Police Force must face to in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

One of the ways to meet these challenges in my opinion is justice reinvestment.

Today I will introduce you to the idea of justice reinvestment, the role Police can play and some of the ground work I’ve been doing with the Bourke community.

But firstly, I think it is worthwhile to acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates are unacceptably high. Rather than go over the statistics again, let’s take a moment to think about the human impact of these numbers.

Of course, there is the impact on the victim. Let me be clear, I often struggle with the balance between the needs of victims and offenders because sometimes it is hard to get past the horrific damage those offenders perpetrate.

I do not make excuses for offending, especially violent crime but I do think there is more we can do to prevent crime and create accountability.

Part of preventing crime is acknowledging the impact of offending and imprisonment on the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. Offenders are parents, aunties and uncles. They have important social and cultural roles in their communities. Removing these people from their communities can weaken struggling Indigenous communities further. This is even more destructive if they are returning from a stint of imprisonment without the necessary rehabilitation and community reintegration as is so often the case.

Research indicates that a ‘tipping point’ may occur in communities once crime and incarceration reaches a certain point. This means that such damage is done to the community that they are less able to manage ‘social order through family or social groups [and] crime rates go up’.[1]

This is what we are seeing in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. For instance, research has shown that 20% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have a parent or carer in prison. This can have intergenerational effects.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners are three times as likely as non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners to have had a parent in prison as a child.

These statistics feed into the negative stereotypes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and impact on how many people in our communities see the world and their life chances.   

How do you think it makes a young Aboriginal kid feel, to know that they 35 times more likely to be sent to juvenile detention than the white kid sitting next to them in school? And when they get to juvenile detention they are likely to be greeted by friends and family in a system where over half of the population is Indigenous? How do you think they feel when they get out finding their mother, father, uncle or auntie has been put in lock up too. Worse still, how do you think they feel if a family member has been a victim of violence or abuse but has felt too disempowered to come forward and report the crime?

I’ll tell you how they feel- they feel angry.

Unfortunately, they also see that the Police are playing a role in all of these decisions. When they see more Aboriginal kids in juvenile detention than white kids and when they live in neighbourhoods where Police are highly visible, rightly or wrongly, they tend to connect two and two together.

The reality is that the Aboriginal community perception of the NSW Police still needs improvement.

One way I can see this improvement happening is through justice reinvestment.

Justice reinvestment is a criminal justice approach that diverts a portion of the money for imprisonment to local communities where there is a high concentration of offenders. The money that would have been spent on imprisonment is reinvested into services that address the underlying causes of crime in these communities.

When I talk about justice reinvestment I like to set out two caveats. The first is that I’m not talking about not locking people up. There are some people, including some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who need to be separated from society for a while. But let’s use prison as a real option of last resort.

Secondly, I prefer to talk about justice reinvestment as an opportunity to create safer communities, rather than just concentrating on reducing incarceration rates. I’m a fairly simple bloke so I figure if we can create safer communities it means less offending which in turn will mean less people going to jail.

To give you a perspective on the situation in our communities, a 2009 Productivity Commission Report tells us that Indigenous people were hospitalised as a result of spouse or partner violence at 34 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that violence in Indigenous situations has escalated in past decades. In 2002 nearly one-quarter of Indigenous people aged 15 years or over reported being a victim of physical or threatened violence in the previous 12 months; nearly double the rate reported in 1994.

It is tragic also that family violence escalates to homicide in Indigenous situations at rates that are double that of the non-Indigenous population.

The data tells us that family violence is overwhelmingly present as a factor in Indigenous homicides. In comparison with the rest of the Australian population, Indigenous homicides are most likely to occur between intimate partners.

An Australian Institute of Criminology report of Indigenous homicides from 1990 to 2000 found that 38 percent of Indigenous homicides were between intimate partners, 19 percent involved other family, 27 percent involved friends and acquaintances and only 3 percent involved strangers.

We know too that there is a gender element to the statistical picture. Indigenous women are 45 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be victims of domestic violence. And the homicide rates of Indigenous women are between 9 and 23 times higher at different times in the life cycle than they are for non-Indigenous women.

With these figure you can see why we need to create safer communities.

So how does it work?

Justice reinvestment is essentially about investing our resources at front end, to prevent crime, rather than the back end, in prisons.

This focus on early intervention is not new. However, justice reinvestment is different because it invests early intervention services in specific communities where there is the greatest need. Most importantly it is done with the communities contributing to how these funds are spent to prevent crime.

Justice reinvestment was developed in the United States. Since 2006 it has been implemented in 17 states. It is interesting that it is predominantly conservative Republican States that have seen the social and economic benefits of justice reinvestment. This is because justice reinvestment is a fiscally sound policy. It looks at whether imprisonment is a good investment. It considers ways to reduce corrections spending in favour of evidence based prevention and diversionary programs.

There have been some terrific successes. For example, in Kansas they have reduced imprisonment from a record high and avoided building a new prison. This is expected to save $80 million over five years.

Texas reinvested $241 million that would otherwise have been spent on the construction of prisons on treatment programs. The prison population stopped growing for the first time in decades.
These results are great but what really interests me is how we can make it work for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

There are persuasive arguments for trialling this approach with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities given the high levels of over representation. The principles of a justice reinvestment approach including:

  • localism
  • community control and
  • better cooperation between local services

Also align with what we know about human rights based practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service delivery.
Justice reinvestment is also in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples- the foundational document in human rights for all Indigenous peoples.  The Declaration states that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the right to self-determination. We also have the right to participate in decision-making that affects us and the right to the improvement of our economic and social conditions.

Justice Reinvestment is a policy which is built on effective participation and self-determination to improve our lives and the well-being of our communities by diverting our people away from jails and from the criminal justice system to community-led development programs.

Advocates like me have been arguing for justice reinvestment since 2009. We are now starting to see some traction. At the government level, there have been recommendations in a number of Commonwealth and state reports. At the community level, we are seeing some really exciting work about what justice reinvestment could look like in Australia.

I have been invited by the Bourke community to work with them around justice reinvestment. I’ve visited twice in past few months and had some fantastic discussions about some of the challenges they are facing in terms of crime and imprisonment. There seems to be a real appetite for the idea of justice reinvestment in the community.

Many of you will probably know a bit about Bourke and may remember the dubious headline in media back in February this year that Bourke per capita is more dangerous than any other country in the world. While I don’t agree with that, we do need to face up to the fact that there are some big problems that need to be addressed to create a safer community in Bourke.

Let me paint a picture: Bourke is a pretty isolated town with a population of nearly 3000 people, 30% Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. There are over 50 community organisations servicing the area and 40 Police. The problems of service integration have been well documented by the Ombudsman.

Our research has shown that the cost of incarcerating the 47 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people last year was $2.2 million. If you can reduce this by 20% you could have half a million dollars to reinvest in the community.

One of Bourke’s strengths is the established local governance structure. But despite this, what I’ve been hearing is that the community is not getting enough of a say into how money is spent and the way programs are run. I see justice reinvestment as a mechanism to bring the community into these conversations and decisions.

While funding is important, I believe that community participation will ultimately be the driver for success. We are yet to do service mapping but it would seem on the face of it that there is a good amount of money being spent in Bourke- but not in adequate partnership and consultation with the community.

It is still early days but I’m really heartened by the courage of the people of Bourke to step up and face these issues in an inclusive way. Last visit, Megan Mitchell, our new national Children’s Commissioner also came along and it was fantastic to see the young people have a voice in this process.

There was a really touching moment at the end of our big community meeting when one of the Elders said that this was the first time she had seen the young people take part in a meeting like this and how proud she was of them. You could see those kids sitting up straighter and feeling really valued and heard.

We were lucky to have Police take part in our discussions in Bourke. Police are such an important part of the community and are so crucial to justice reinvestment that I see your role as being integral to the success or otherwise of this approach at Bourke. I consider the Police are not just another service provider; you have to be involved from the ground up in an equal partnership with the Aboriginal community from day one.

Along with Alistair Ferguson I have met with Fred Trench, Mick Williams, Karina Gibb and Geoff McKechnie about the role of the local Police in developing a strategy to make Bourke safer and reduce offending.

We have had a good hearing and I sense a commitment to this process and without wanting to single too many people out I can’t let this opportunity pass without mentioning the great role Mick Williams is playing out there.

I am hoping that the Police will continue to take an active role in justice reinvestment in Bourke and take advantage of the role Mick can play.

At the State level, Police have already played a part in advocating for justice reinvestment. Luke Freudenstein is a champion of the Just Reinvest- the campaign for justice reinvestment in NSW.

Luke’s work with Shane Phillips in running the Clean Slate Program is a perfect example of the sort of evidence based programs that justice reinvestment can support.

Even successful programs like Clean Slate - that has contributed to an 80% reduction in robberies by juvenile offenders in Redfern - face challenges in securing long term funding. Justice reinvestment would support programs like this, providing long term funding for evidence-based programs that support community aspirations.

It is still early days for the process in Bourke but the community is working really well to get organised and think about how they can make a safer community. It is my hope that if we can support Bourke to do this, we will have a model that will speak for itself in its ability to reduce imprisonment, reduce costs and empower the community.

Thank you for your time today.

[1] D Stemen, Reconsidering Incarceration: New Directions for Reducing Crime, Vera Institute of Juvenile Justice, 2007. At (viewed 14 February 2013).


Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner