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In 2008 people of Indigenous descent made up over 24% of the prison population within Australia. This figure is quite disturbing considering that Indigenous people only made up 2.5% of the total Australian population in that same year. As of June 30 2009 the number of prisoners who were Indigenous stood at 7,386. This represented a quarter (25%) of the total prisoner population, compared with the 24% at 30 June 2008. This meant that Indigenous prisoner numbers had increased by 10% between 2008 and 2009 (ABS, 2009). It is common knowledge that Indigenous Australians are over-represented in custody and also deaths in custody but what many people aren't aware of are the factors that contribute to these over-representations. Throughout the history of Australia the criminal justice system has seen an inconsistent existence of Aborigines in custody compared to any other race or culture in Australia. In 1991 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which was established in 1987 verified claims that Indigenous Australians were more likely to go to prison than non- Indigenous Australians. In fact statistics showed that they were 27 times more likely. Even after Seventeen years, the over-representation of Indigenous Australians is still manifest in prisons throughout Australia (Higgi, 2006)
The 25 % of Indigenous people making up the prison population in 2009 consisted of 6,783 males and 603 females. While the number of Indigenous women in custody is less than the number of Indigenous men in custody, the number of Indigenous women being placed in custody is rapidly increasing at an alarming rate and they are currently extremely over-represented. In general imprisonment rates for women have amplified more rapidly in comparison to the men's rates and the increase in incarceration of Indigenous women over this period has been far greater in contrast with non-Indigenous women. Statistics show that between the years 2002 and 2006 an increase of 34% was detected for the imprisonment of Indigenous females while the imprisonment rate for Indigenous men had increased by only 22%. Indigenous women were also 23 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous women while Indigenous men were only 16 times as likely to be locked up compared to non-Indigenous men. (ABS, 2009)
Over-representation of Indigenous women occurs due to the excruciatingly high levels of family violence, ill-health, over-policing for selected offences, poverty and unemployment. "These women live in a landscape of risk and suffer at the crossroads of their race and gender, these women are some of the most vulnerable people in our society and we must try now to address these alarming rates of incarceration." (Jonas, 2003)
In relation to Indigenous juveniles, they are also considerably over-represented in custody compared to non Indigenous juveniles. In 2005/06 for every 1000 Indigenous youths, 44 were under juvenile justice custody whereas for every 1000 non Indigenous youths only 3 were under juvenile justice custody. (ABS, 2008) A study by the AIC (2003) which was based on the first appearances of juvenile offenders under supervision between the years of 1994 up until September 2002 reported that by September 2002, 89% of Indigenous male juveniles on supervised orders had eventually had criminal dealings within the adult system, with 71% having served at least one term of incarceration. Assorted studies have suggested connecting issues including lower rates of accomplishment in primary and secondary education, higher rates of poverty, disadvantage among Indigenous Australians and alcohol and drug mistreatment as the main driving force for these high rates of Indigenous juvenile offenders
In regards to Indigenous Australians dying whilst under custodial supervision, The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established by the Labor Federal Government in 1987 following a report released by Amnesty International which portrayed critical findings on Australia's human rights record in relation to Indigenous Australians, their deaths in custody and also criminal justice. Conclusions were made that although it seemed that Indigenous people were dying in custody at a high rate, the reasoning behind these high rates of Indigenous custody deaths was not due to them being in a higher risk category of dying compared to non Indigenous Australians, but purely because the Aboriginal population is grossly over-represented in custody thus making the rate of Indigenous deaths relative to their overall quantity. (Neal, 2010) Since the conclusion of The Royal Commissions Inquiry there have been some optimistic approaches to try decline the number of Indigenous Australians in custody. Night patrols, mentoring programs, visiting privileges for inmates secluded from families are just some of the community-based projects and proposals which have been put in place. Even after all the arrangements which were implemented during the previous time period, the primary concerns the Royal Commission examined are still a definite worry. Indigenous Australians nationwide detention rate has increased by 25% with a national rise of 63% for Indigenous women. From the time when the Royal Commission Inquiry took place, deaths in police custody had decreased throughout the years from 21% of all deaths to 18%. On the contrary, deaths in prisons increased radically from 35% to 81% for all Indigenous deaths in detention. (Neal, 2010)
Society may be questioning why Indigenous Australians are over-represented in custody. Well there are numerous factors as to why these figures are substantially high in comparison to non Indigenous Australians.
Possible explanations behind the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody are some of the disadvantages they face in day to day life. This could be a result of many combined social, economic and cultural conditions. Indigenous people in Australia can be more prone to high levels of unemployment and homelessness which can also increase the likelihood of committing crime. Alcohol and various drug abuse has also been recognised in some Indigenous populations as a key factor in committing criminal offences. Other factors which contribute to Indigenous over-representation in custody include:
â€¢ Residing in crime ridden locations
â€¢ Lack of social support
â€¢ Low financial status
Overseas countries including the U.S.A and UK did studies which stated that serious problems of petty crime and violence were linked to unemployment, social issues and income troubles. Australia has also gathered similar conclusions. In 1993 figures showed that two-thirds of all people in prison were not employed when they were arrested. Other figures showed that only one in eight prisoners had finished their secondary school studies (Walker & Salloom 1993). The proportions of Indigenous people who are unemployed and haven't completed school are a lot worse compared to non-Indigenous people. As a result of these statistics the probability of these Indigenous people being incarcerated increases drastically. In reality non-Indigenous people are ten times more likely to be in prison if they have not finished secondary school and Indigenous people even when they have completed their secondary studies still have the same chance of going to prison. People who are both Indigenous and haven't completed their secondary studies are 130 times more likely to be in prison than those lacking these characteristics. (AIC, 1995) The difficulties which the Indigenous communities are faced with goes way beyond their lack of educational and employment opportunities. Other aspects which need to be considered are things such as self-esteem, cultural identity, job prospects and economic potential of Indigenous people. If major improvements are prepared in regards to the Indigenous community's social and economic policies it will be more likely to be effective in reducing inconsistency in rates of imprisonment.
Center for Social Justice (2007) stated that "Aboriginal people are more likely to be remanded to custody due to a lack of secure accommodation and limited personal or family assets to fund bail sureties." It also acknowledged that Indigenous Australians were over-represented in prisons just like they are over-represented at every other level of the criminal justice system. Claims were also made that various Indigenous communities are targeted specifically by police. 'They are subject to a form and level of surveillance that is not replicated in other communities.'(CSJ, 2007) There is great indication that certain laws are used much more regularly against Indigenous than non-Indigenous communities therefore increasing the likelihood of these people getting arrested. Even though some people recognise that this may have played a role in the incarceration of Indigenous people, some people don't have the same opinion. One comment left on the report 'Indigenous Australians in prison, 2006' states that (they) are sick of hearing "black" people making excuses and using their cultural heritage as reasoning behind their increased chances of being incarcerated. The blogger also states that it is up to the individual person and the Indigenous community to control their own future and help decrease these figures (woods81, 2010). Another commenter talks about how non-Indigenous Australians also have representations in deaths in custody, stolen wealth, domestic violence, financial difficulties. Although the commenter is in agreement that a lack of education and alcoholism is a contributing factor in Indigenous over-representations in custody, they also believe that Indigenous people have been offered plenty of opportunities and support to get on the right track in life and lower the rate of Indigenous people residing in custody (Hiluxgirl, 2007). These are just some examples of the diverse range of arguments presented for the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in custody.
Another important rationale to consider is how the European settlement affected the Indigenous communities. The removal of traditional regulation and cultural customs meant that many established practices the Indigenous society had for maintaining justice were taken over by foreign laws and punishment which could have affected the amount of Indigenous people being placed in custody . Reasons such as them not being conscious of the new laws and punishment and also them not being aware of the extremity of the new laws and punishment could have increased the amount of Indigenous Australians put into custody (Higgi, 2006).
In regards to the above findings recommendations have been made to assist in the reduction of Indigenous Australians in custody with ideas including the revising of bail provisions to assist in the removal of cultural bias, alternative court mechanisms, funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS), the development of guidelines to encourage other resolutions apart from arrest, and cultural awareness training for people involved in the criminal justice system. (Law Council, 2010)
Other measures and strategies implemented to try and alleviate the over representation of indigenous Australians in custody include the 339 proposals made by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to State, Commonwealth and Territory government which they believed could help address the primary concerns of the over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody and consequently deaths in custody.
The Royal Commission's recommendations related to areas including Indigenous health, housing and infrastructure, employment, improving criminal justice system and education.
Another suggestion they made was to use imprisonment as a last resort. Alternative methods were suggested such as community based sentencing (home detention, community service orders, and periodic detention), alternative correctional sentences (centers in rural areas which focus on learning new skills, establish cultural understanding, behavioral classes which focus on anger management and violent behavior reduction) and Circle sentencing which is where the Indigenous community members sit in a circle with the offender and make a decision as to the punishment/sentence the offender should receive. (Neal, 2010)
To this day research is ongoing and various strategies will continue to be implemented in order to try and improve the current situation that is the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in custody thus the over-representation of deaths in custody.