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Indigenous prisoner numbers ‘unacceptably high’ in Victoria

This represents a 70 per cent growth and a shift in the proportion of Indigenous inmates from 7 per cent of the prison population to 10 per cent.

Though overall prison numbers have decreased during the pandemic, the number of Indigenous prisoners last month was still almost twice the number from November 2014.

The Indigenous imprisonment rate has also soared, rising 40 per cent in the latest available figures comparing June 2015 with June last year.

The government has established a $40 million Aboriginal Justice Agreement and was the first jurisdiction to set a Closing the Gap target for rates of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people under justice supervision by 2031, a spokesperson said.

The government has also committed to decriminalising public drunkenness, an offence that disproportionately impacts the Indigenous population.

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“Across Australia, rates of Aboriginal over-representation in the justice system are unacceptable – which is why reducing those rates is now a key priority of the national cabinet,” a state government spokesperson said.

Nationally, the average daily number of Indigenous prisoners has risen in the March quarter this year by 5 per cent compared with December and March last year, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released this month.

And while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 3 per cent of Australia’s population, they account for 29 per cent of the total adult prisoner population and more than 50 per cent of the juvenile detention population.

“It’s the wrong direction,” Change the Record’s Sophie Trevitt said of the increasing numbers.

“We’re in this new national and global moment where we’re talking about black deaths in custody.

“State and territory governments have a direct responsibility in terms of preventing deaths in custody by decreasing incarceration rates.”

The rise in overall prisoner numbers in Victoria has been driven by multiple reforms toughening parole, restricting bail and sentencing laws, more police and a larger population.

Dr Read called for an urgent reform to bail laws so minor offenders are not imprisoned unless they pose a high risk to the community.

His call comes as Victorian judges and lawyers involved in the International Commission of Jurists said on Wednesday the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody remained unacceptably high.

They want the government to adopt a section of Canada’s criminal code to mandate imprisonment as the last resort.

Protesters at the Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney this month.

Protesters at the Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney this month.Credit:James Brickwood

Both the Greens’ and ICJV’s calls echo reforms led by Change the Record, an Aboriginal-led justice coalition.

Ms Trevitt said raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years old to 14 would also make a difference.

“The incarceration process starts so young,” Ms Trevitt said.

“This is a legal change that could be changed overnight and it would change the entire trajectory of a child’s life.”

The renewed focus on incarceration rates follows Black Lives Matters protests in capital cities this month following the death of African-American man George Floyd in police custody.

Federal and state governments issued a draft target in December 2018 to reduce adult Indigenous incarceration by at least 5 per cent by 2028, but have never put it into formal agreement or action.

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