US protests highlight continuation of high Indigenous Australian incarceration rates

CCA’s CEO, Dr Don Perlgut, comments on recent news:

The extraordinary and saddening news from the USA about protests and demonstrations in at least 140 American cities, focussed on police brutality and the economic deprivation of African-Americans, has illustrated again the unhappy history of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples incarceration.

CCA last highlighted this two years ago, when the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) released its report Pathways to Justice–Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

“Indigenous incarceration is costing nearly $8 billion annually and will grow to almost $20 billion per annum by 2040 without further intervention,” according to a PwC Australia and PwC’s Indigenous Consulting report, quoted by the ALRC.

People as diverse as Indigenous leader Pat Dodson and NSW Bar Association President Arthur Moses, SC called this situation a “national shame”. Yet, as the ALRC report notes, between 2006 and 2016, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous incarceration rates widened further.

This week brought the unwelcome news that these figures have still not abated. The Australian Bureau of Statistics released its Corrective Services, March Quarter 2020 report, which shows, “the average daily number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners increased in the March quarter 2020 by 5% (580) to 12,902, compared with 12,322 in the December quarter 2019; and 12,144 in the March quarter 2019.”

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald points out, “While the general population was imprisoned in the March 2020 quarter at a rate of 220.7 people per 100,000, the state's (NSW) Aboriginal population was imprisoned at a rate of 2427.4 per 100,000.”

Read that carefully: Indigenous Australians are incarcerated at a rate eleven times (that’s 1100%) that of the general population. And New South Wales, by no means the worse state, reflects the national average:  while Indigenous Australians represent only 3% of the total population, more than 29% of Australia's prison population are Indigenous.

According to the Pew Research Centre, African-American incarceration rates have improved in recent years, but still run 5.6 times (560%) higher than that of white Americans.

What Community Colleges Australia and adult and community education providers can do

Aside from the massive personal, social and communal costs, Australia pays a significant economic cost by the heavy over-representation of Indigenous Australians in custody. Australia’s inability to deal with this systematic and systemic injustice is a continuing blot on our national reputation.

CCA is committed to ensuring its members maximise the positive impacts they can make in their local Indigenous communities. In doing this, we build on a strong base. For instance, in New South Wales, almost 13% of government-funded VET community education students are Indigenous, a percentage much higher than either TAFE (9.4%) or the for-profit VET providers (6.4%).

Last year, CCA commissioned an Engaging Indigenous Communities Guide for member organisations to support and build their capacities to engage with their Indigenous communities and learners. The Guide was developed by the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre (AILC), shaped by input from CCA members, with funding from the NSW Government. We are currently conducting training for member organisations about the use of the Guide, and will release it publicly soon, for the benefit of the whole Australian vocational education and training sector.

Australia’s not-for-profit community education sector can make immediate and profound differences through innovative programs such as the award-winning Indigenous drivers education program established by Lismore’s ACE Community Colleges. This unique program – undertaken in direct collaboration with local Aboriginal communities and expanded into other communities – breaks the cycle of no-licence- receive-fine-for-driving-illegally, often leading to incarceration. The ALRC report devotes a whole chapter to fines and drivers licenses.

(image below: locations of riots in US cities; source: New York Times)

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