Amnesty International released their report, ‘A Brighter Tomorrow’ (the Report) on 3 June 2015 at the National Press Club in Canberra.
The Report details the glaring statistics including the fact that youth incarceration is at its highest rate since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody some 20 years ago.
The report was launched by Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Salil Shetty who said:
“Australia locks up Indigenous children, from as young as 10 years old, at one of the highest rates in the world. Overrepresentation is rising, with Indigenous children making up less than 6% of the population of 10–17 year-olds yet more than half (58 per cent) of young people in detention.”
The Report commended the numerous programs that are being initiated by Aboriginal communities, including the Justice Reinvestment Program which is part of the Maranguka initiative which is a grass-roots justice reinvestment project that aims to empower the Aboriginal community in Bourke and means ‘care for others.’
This strategy is a community led strategy where the money spent on incarceration is redirected to rehabilitation and education, in addition to, community programs which determine why the crimes occurred in the first place and addressing the individual and community issues which lead to crime. This multi-disciplinary approach not only addresses the issue of crime but it improves outcomes of the families of those assisted and the community at large because the educational opportunities undoubtedly assist in achieving a higher standard of living which flows through.
The intent is to stop youths from offending before they become part of the justice system and to find more appropriate ways to rehabilitate and educate to avoid reoffending. It may be that a youth involved in theft would be given an opportunity for further education or employment; a driving offender given assistance to obtain a legal license with safe driver training or perhaps a realistic plan for bail reoffenders from breaching their conditions.
Mr Shetty experienced this work in Bourke first hand when he visited and said:
“I’m inspired by the innovative work Indigenous communities are doing across Australia to bring up a new generation of young people, but the Australian Government needs to catch up, and fund the programs that have been shown to work in keeping Indigenous kids out of prison, and making communities safer - it’s a win/win for all Australians.”
The Indigenous communities that are trailblazing in this new area of community based justice reinvestment are doing so for the benefit of their communities, however, there is the additional benefit that education and rehabilitation ultimately costs less than incarcerating.
Mr Shetty confirmed that:
“In Australia it costs $440,000 per year to detain each child, meaning the cost of just one year of detention could instead put a young Indigenous person through an entire undergraduate medical degree.”
Mr Shetty confirmed that the Report makes a number of recommendations to the Commonwealth and state governments, including:
· To conform with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for any person up to the age of 17 detention must be a measure of last resort
· Any state of territory laws that treat persons below the age of 12 as criminally responsible should be declared invalid
· Australia should ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and allow inspections of youth detention facilities to ensure standards are being met
· Australia should recognise Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders as a disability under the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Mr Shetty reiterated the criticism Australia has received international with respect to its breaches of international obligations with respect to children, particularly Indigenous children, and affirmed a further recommendation of the adoption of the Indigenous Justice Reinvestment strategies:
“Australia must seize this once-in-a-generation chance to keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children out of prison and make communities safer.”
The Sydney launch of the campaign took place in the Redfern Community Centre on 12 June 2015 where a number of speakers were empanelled to discuss the vast work ahead in combatting the numerous issues facing the Indigenous community, particularly the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in our justice system.
Shane Phillips, a Bunjalung, Wonnarua and Bidjigal man and CEO of Tribal Warrior and Program Coordinator of Clean Slate Without Prejudice spoke of his experience with the criminal justice system and the fact that there is a need for community driven change.
Mr Phillips having the experience of an uneasy relationship with police, following contact with the police to come to solution, set out to effect change to the lives of the Indigenous youth of Redfern who were mentored and provided with guidance to achieve success by using their time productively which has seen a reduction of criminal activity and success for the youths involved in the program.
Mr Phillips is proud of the Indigenous youth that he has mentored over the years and considers the positive change of one Indigenous child to be a success. Mr Phillips said:
“the success is plain to see, all you need to do is come down to the gym before school one morning to see the kids and how they are making healthy decisions.”
Mr Phillips said that his formula is not complicated:
“all you need to do is help them with setting up a routine from reasonable bed times to ensuring attendance at school and healthy physical outlets and their pride follows when they can see the results for themselves.”
Mr Phillips says that it is rewarding to see the sense of self and pride in them as they succeed in their goals.
Kerry Graham, a social justice advocate with Just Reinvest NSW, spoke of her experience in children’s justice and how the situation is complex but the answer to addressing this injustice is so simple. Ms Graham says, “the answer lies within the communities, the elders and the cultural teachings are what will make a fundamental shift.”
Elizabeth Wymarra, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander from the Wakaith people from Badu Island in the western Torres Strait region of far north Queensland and the Gudang Aboriginal people from Injinoo and Mapoon community in Cape York; is a writer, performing artist and youth worker who was most passionate in her discussion during the launch.
Ms Wymarra spoke of the importance of speaking about the reasons why there are such atrocious statistics; racism. Racism is at the heart of every policy and governmental decision which has subverted Indigenous people over the last 227 years and Ms Wymarra is passionate about the education system getting a shake up to ensure future generations of Australians don’t continue the racist policies.
While Amnesty International is committed and passionate to contributing to a brighter future for Indigenous people, at the heart of the problem is the fact that change will always fail where the community is not consulted and/or the drivers of change.