It's time to stop investing in punitive criminal justice responses that trap Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in cycles of imprisonment and disadvantage, states open letter.

More than 300 criminologists, lawyers and other academics from across Australia have signed an open letter calling on all Australian governments to take urgent action to address the over-criminalisation and over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The letter was initiated by members of the Centre for Crime, Law and Justice (CCLJ) at UNSW Sydney as a way of supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been campaigning for justice on these issues for decades.

Since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, there have been 438 known deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in police or corrective services custody.

“There has been a chronic lack of accountability for these deaths,” the open letter says.

It calls for a move away from punitive criminal justice responses, in favour of addressing the social and economic needs of communities – which is not a radical or fringe suggestion, CCLJ co-director, Professor Luke McNamara says.

“This is a shift that is entirely consistent with the recommendations of the ALRC’s Pathways to Justice report.”

The open letter catalogues the disturbing and overwhelming evidence of massive over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prisons, and as targets of police surveillance, enforcement and violence – including the failure of Australian governments to act on recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice report (tabled in March 2018).

“One of the major recommendations from the ALRC is governments should commit to ‘justice reinvestment’ as an approach to crime prevention and safety that builds, rather than damages, communities,” Prof McNamara says.

The open letter – which has been delivered to the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Christian Porter, and all State and Territory Attorneys-General – contains a five-point call to action:

  1. Investment in effective diversion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people caught in criminal justice cycles;
  2. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years of age;
  3. An end to ever-increasing police and corrections budgets;
  4. Investment in community services and structural initiatives led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;
  5. Real government support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ calls for self-determination, control and voice, and for significant social and economic investment in their communities.

Eddie Synot, Centre Manager of the Indigenous Law Centre, says revamped Closing the Gap targets are not enough to address the overcriminalisation and overincarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“Despite decades of reports and inquiries and evidence from the front-line of our communities that the current approach does not work and causes harm -- we continue to be lashed with retrograde decisions that unnecessarily condemn further generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to prison,” he continues.

My Synot says The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was clear, as was the Australian Law Reform Commission’s most recent report Pathways to Justice.

“Nothing short of substantive structural reform that empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is enough to address the problems of racism, overcriminalisation and overincarceration that our communities face.”

Mr Synot says there are enough evidence-based solutions available to make a real difference in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“We need decision makers to listen and to make better decisions; we need structural reform – the likes of which the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for – not revamped justice targets that will fail our people for generations to come,” he says.

The open letter and full list of signatories is available here.