15 April 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
The Royal Commission found that the alarmingly high number of deaths in custody was directly related to the disproportionately high number of Aboriginal people who were arrested and imprisoned. A quarter of a century later, the issue of over-representation of Aboriginal people in our prisons has gotten worse, not better.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), between 2002 and 2012, imprisonment rates for Aboriginal Australians increased from 1,262 to 1,914 Aboriginal prisoners per 100,000 adults. By comparison, the rate for non-Indigenous prisoners increased from 123 to 129 per 100,000 adults.
As at 30 June 2014, the ABS found Western Australia had the highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate in the country, with 3,663.5 prisoners per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult population.
Since 2010, around 1000 people have been sent to prison each year solely for unpaid fines, according to the Human Rights Law Centre, with Aboriginal women disproportionately affected.
The ‘Change the Record’ campaign, which is supported by the Law Council of Australia, found that since 2010, one in every six Aboriginal people going to prison in WA was there to pay off fines. In 2013, almost one-third of all women entering prison in WA were there for unpaid fines, and almost two-thirds of these women were Aboriginal.
Law Society President Elizabeth Needham said, “The Law Society calls on the Western Australian Government to continue to address the underlying influences that have resulted in disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates among Aboriginal people.
“These figures show that despite efforts to date, we are moving in the wrong direction. It is vital to invest in early intervention, prevention and diversion strategies to address the root causes of reoffending, cut imprisonment rates, and support stronger and safer communities.”
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