The WA election and Indigenous incarceration

By Associate Professor Hilde Tubex
University of Western Australia

It is shamefully true that Western Australia (WA) has the highest rate of Indigenous incarceration in Australia.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, on the 30th of June 2020 the imprisonment rate – the number of prisoners out of 100,000 adults – of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in WA prisons was 3,464 compared to 2,081 nationally.

In comparison, the non-Indigenous imprisonment rate was 217, (156 nationally), which makes Indigenous peoples in WA 16 times more likely to be in prison.

Knowing the devastating impact imprisonment has on the lives of Indigenous peoples and their communities, it is more than urgent to address this deplorable situation.

What did Labor promise going into the election?

Looking at the overview of criminal justice (CJ)-related election promises, the first conclusion is that Labor did not present a ‘law and order’ program to win over its potential electorate. The CJ-related policies are limited in number and budget, and many of them focus on treatment and non-adversarial justice initiatives.

While in general popular in the run up to elections, there was no promise from Labor to hire more policemen. With two new police stations (worth $41million), a CCTV project ($100,000) and a mobile command centre ($3 million), new investment in the WA police force is limited. We have to note that the McGowan Government made a solid investment in its first term, recruiting an additional 1,100 policemen.

Given the fact that crime rates are going down in WA, as is the case in other jurisdictions in Australia and over the world, it seems a wise decision to put the money elsewhere.

When it comes to corrective services there is only one new initiative - an expansion of the drug treatment prison model to Bunbury Regional Prison ($12.2 million). The drug treatment model was first introduced in 2018 when Wandoo women’s Prison was returned to public sector management as part of the McGowan Government's comprehensive Methamphetamine Action Plan.

It runs a six-month community-based therapeutic program and shows very good results. In January 2021, 149 women had completed the program since its inception, and with only one woman who had completed the program returning to prison, the recidivism rate is less than one per cent - the lowest in the nation.

This initiative was followed by a new 128-bed drug treatment prison for men at Casuarina Prison in October 2020. Mallee Rehabilitation Centre was the first prison treatment facility for male offenders in WA, which will now be followed by Bunbury. Also part of the strategy of combatting methamphetamine use is a $57.8 million investment towards a 24-hour addiction service in Perth's central business district, a 20-bed rehabilitation facility, and investment in a parent and family drug support program.

For the Attorney General we find three initiatives. There is the investment in the ‘Western Desert Justice Program’ ($1.5 million), which offers therapeutic diversionary options, culturally appropriate drug and alcohol services and mentoring on country.

Second, there is $1.5 million investment in the one and only WA Justice Reinvestment Project in Halls Creek (Olabud Doogethu). Justice Reinvestment came over from the US in the early 2000s. The basic idea is to invest in high crime communities to address the underlying causes of (re-)offending and crime prevention. It has been advocated for as a way to address Indigenous over-representation in the CJ system as it is a community-based approach.

The idea was first trialled in Bourke in New South Wales in 2014 to reduce the number of young people that come in touch with the CJ system. In 2018 it was positively evaluated as regards reducing arrests, bail breaches, time spend in custody, and domestic violence incidents.

Two police officers on motorbikes in front of Perth's skyline
Given WA's low rate of crime, investment in police is wiser spent elsewhere. Pic: Wiki Commons

The final investment is in the development of an Aboriginal-led specialist family violence court in Broome ($4.8 million), similar to the Barndimalgu Court in Geraldton. The Barndimalgu Court provides a more culturally appropriate and therapeutic court-based model for addressing Aboriginal family violence, including local Aboriginal community members in the process.

The court was evaluated in 2013 and, while the quantitative results did not demonstrate a significantly better outcome than mainstream courts, the experiences of victims with the specialised court where mainly positive.

Finally, Labor promised a whole raft of initiatives related to family and domestic violence, which is in line with the National Plan to reduce violence against women and their children (2010-2022). Related to CJ, Labor promises to fund family and domestic programs for women in prison ($2.1 million).

Knowing that the use of violence – particularly in Indigenous communities – is often related to family and domestic violence (for example the case of Jody Gore), this is also a commendable initiative.

Will these measures help reduce Indigenous incarcertation rates?

Overall, all these initiatives seem to be evidence-based and building on projects that have proven to be successful. The question is whether they will address the Indigenous over-representation in the CJ system. In 2019, McGowan outlined 12 key targets that would define his job as Premier, one of them being to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody by 23% by 2029.

This is even more ambitious as the recently added target in the ‘closing the gap’ plan (by 2031, reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults held in incarceration by at least 15%). McGowan promised the targets would be measurable and could be tracked on a new website. The plan was shelved indefinitely as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last year, but let’s see to what extent the Government was on track before the pandemic restrictions impacted on crime and prison numbers.

When the Labor Government took office in March 2017, the number of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander persons in full-time custody was 2,482, the imprisonment rate for males was 7.187 and for females 1.016.

In March 2020, the overall number is 2.766, the male imprisonment rate is 7.167 and the female IR 1.100. Not much progress towards the projected target. So what can we advise the McGowan Government to do to reach its aim in 2029?

From the data available, we know that the most significant increase in the Indigenous population in prison is for women. Further, a large majority of Indigenous people have ‘acts intended to cause injury’ as the most serious charge or conviction. We also know that Indigenous peoples tend to serve shorter sentences than non-Indigenous people and that few of them apply for and receive early release.

We further know that more Indigenous people have been in prison before than is the case for non-Indigenous people. Starting from this, we would plead  to invest in diversionary options, further investment in FDV initiatives, culturally appropriate treatment programs, particularly for women, and importantly, support for early release and throughcare services to break the cycle of (re)offending.

Given the fact that the Labor Government has a 'very comfortable' parliamentary majority and might very well be in office for another couple of terms, it is time to set out some serious long-term strategies to address Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system.

Meeting the 23% target by 2029 would be a good starting point.

Banner image source: Caroline Martins/Pexels


election; law Election; Law and Order australia; western-australia Australia; Western Australia

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