In the wake of the 50th anniversary of the American civil rights movement inspired and led by a man with a dream of racial equality, the USA still seems to be far from realising that dream and is still plagued by problems of racial inequality. Much of the western world reacted with anger and astonishment as evidence of this fact was brought to the public’s attention with controversial verdicts such as the case of the death of Trayvon Martin as well as the release of alarming statistics.
While the statistics from the USA might be enough to send shivers down the spine of even the most hardened social worker, another western nation is showing far more alarming signs. Australia is imprisoning its Indigenous population at a higher rate than that of the imprisonment of the African-American population in the USA.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are severely overrepresented in the Australian criminal justice system. Statistics on corrective services from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that Indigenous Australians comprise 26% of the total prison population: a rather remarkable fact considering that the total Indigenous population adds up to a mere 2.5% of the total Australian population.
Research from the Australian Institute of Criminology has come to similar conclusions. Statistics indicate that, rather than being a recent phenomenon, this is an issue that has been deteriorating throughout the past decade. The rate of incarceration of the Indigenous population of Australia grew significantly between 2000 and 2008, increasing by 34.5% to an imprisonment rate that is 14 times higher than that of the non-Indigenous population.
Statistics concerning recidivism show similar patterns. According to statistics from the period 2000-2008, of Indigenous adult males sent to prison, 70% will reoffend Indigenous re-imprisonment rates amount to roughly 66% within 10 years. The retention rate for Indigenous university students and students from grade seven to twelve are both below 50%: in other words Indigenous Australians return to prison at a higher rate than they are retained in the school system.
ANTaR, an advocacy organisation dedicated to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, claim that this is a fact of which the Australian government is well aware. In their “Joint Call to Action” ANTaR argue that although a report produced in conjunction with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1992 revealed that there are disproportionate numbers of Indigenous Australians in custody compared to the non-Indigenous population, little has been done by the government on the issue. Overall progress to counteract the problem has been severely limited, despite the report’s many recommendations and an entire section devoted to the situation.
In 2004 the then Prime Minister John Howard introduced the Shared Responsibility Agreement. The agreement consisted of a series of contracts between Aboriginal communities and the Australian government, ensuring Aboriginal communities a certain amount of financial benefits in exchange for fulfilling specific obligations. These contracts signified a change in the relationship between Aboriginal communities and the Australian government, replacing self-determination and autonomy with mutual obligations. The Shared Responsibility Agreement could be argued to be a form of forced assimilation. This governmental approach has been criticised for its patriarchal tendencies. While the change in government policy doesn’t fully explain why the situation of the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system has deteriorated to such a degree, it does give an insight into why the relationship between the government and Indigenous Australians has been characterised by such lack of communication and control.
In recent years the Australian government has adopted a different approach when dealing with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, one that has been characterised by a higher level of cultural awareness. The most notable steps have been the “Close the Gap” campaign against Indigenous disadvantage and Kevin Rudd’s apology over the government’s forced removal of Indigenous children from their families from the early 20th century up until the 1970s. It is hoped that this approach will not bear the same characteristics as its predecessors, lest it risk continuing to lay the foundation for the imprisonment of future generations of Indigenous Australians.