Bar Association supports ALS call for an end to Indigenous over-imprisonment in NSW within a decade


President’s message

Last month the Commonwealth Government announced targets aiming to reduce adult incarceration by 15% by 2031. Those targets have attracted widespread criticism as being inadequate from a number of organisations, including this Association.

The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT (ALS) has called on the NSW Government to show leadership by voluntarily adopting stronger jurisdictional-based justice targets which aim to end the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal people within 10 years, as part of its jurisdictional plan to progress action under the national Closing the Gap agreement.

The New South Wales Bar Association supports the ALS position that the NSW Government commit to ending the over-imprisonment of First Nations People in NSW within a decade.

The Bar Association has consistently said that higher targets to reduce the over-representation of First Nations People in the criminal justice system could be achieved more quickly and effectively. For example, last week the Association drew attention to new figures released by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) which indicated that the State’s prison population had been reduced in eight weeks by 11% and the youth detention population by 27% from February to June in response to the threat of COVID-19. The fact that such a substantial reduction in the prison population can be achieved in the short term in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic indicates that the elimination of Indigenous over-representation in the NSW corrections system within a decade is a workable proposition.

The Association has also consistently advocated for critical initiatives to address the over-representation of First Nations People in Australia’s criminal justice system. There are inherent structural problems which continue to result in the imprisonment of Indigenous people at alarming rates. As at June 2020, BOCSAR’s custody statistics indicate that over 24.5% of male prisoners in custody are indigenous, while indigenous prisoners constitute 32% of the female prison population. Despite these deeply concerning figures, the State Government has failed to respond to, fund and implement urgent priorities identified most recently by the Australian Law Reform Commission in its 2018 Pathways to Justice Report aimed at addressing the problem. The Association supports the immediate adoption of the Pathways to Justice Report recommendations by the NSW Government, including the establishment of a specific indigenous sentencing court at District Level, the Walama Court.

It is incumbent on the NSW Government to take the lead and make a meaningful contribution to ending the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody now. A commitment to reduce incarceration rates by 15% by 2031 is clearly insufficient, when the evidence suggests it is realistically possible to end Indigenous over-representation in that period.

These are matters that are fundamental to the administration of justice in this State and for that reason the Bar Association has and will continue to advocate for reform and support organisations such as the ALS.

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