Expanding justice reinvestment to reduce First Nations incarceration

Thursday, 15 April 2021, marks 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its findings, along with 339 recommendations.
In the three decades since the landmark inquiry, 474 First Nations people have died – that we know about – either in custody or in police pursuits.
Too often these deaths are the result of assault, neglect or preventable suicide. There are proven ways to reduce the causes of incarceration and reduce deaths in custody, and as a nation, it’s time we got on with it.  
First Australians represent three per cent of the general population.
But in the time since the Royal Commission, First Nations people as a proportion of the imprisoned population – adults and our young people – has doubled from 14 per cent to 30 per cent.
In some places, it is nearly 90 per cent.
If we want to reduce deaths in custody, we need to reduce incarceration rates.
If we want to reduce incarceration rates, we need to reduce crime and recidivism.
If we want to reduce crime and recidivism, we need to break the cycle of disadvantage – the socio-economic drivers of these unacceptable trends.  
This is why Labor is announcing a suite of substantive measures to begin to turn the tide on the incarceration and the deaths:

  • Expanding justice re-investment to tackle the root causes of crime and recidivism; 
  • Ensuring coronial inquests into deaths in custody are comprehensive, adequately resourced and inclusive of the voices of families and First Nations communities; and 
  • The establishment of national consolidated real-time reporting of deaths in custody. 

It is no longer good enough just to be tough on crime. We need to be smart and effective on it too. We need to be tough on the causes of crime – the socio-economic drivers of disadvantage.
Labor will boost funding for up to 30 communities to establish justice reinvestment initiatives from 2023 to expand existing services to reduce crime and recidivism – including rehabilitation services; family or domestic violence support; homelessness support and school retention initiatives.
It involves a community-led and holistic approach to keeping at risk individuals out of the criminal justice system.
And it necessarily requires co-ordination with local police and courts.
States and territories would contribute half of the program costs and will benefit from reduced prison costs.
We will establish an independent national justice reinvestment unit to assist communities and evaluate program performance.

To be successful, justice re-investment initiatives will need to be tailored to local needs and developed in partnership with First Nations communities and organisations, including with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and with Family Violence and Prevention Legal Services to ensure that the voices and experiences of First Nations women are heard.
In Bourke, the community-led Maranguka Project is an example of justice reinvestment delivering results. An evaluation by KPMG showed significant reductions in domestic violence, re-offending and juvenile charges, along with improved school retention.
The project was assessed as saving the NSW economy $3.1 million, five times the operating cost of the project in the same year.
Justice reinvestment projects are now being established in Mt Druitt and Moree.
A federal justice re-investment body and federal and state support for justice reinvestment were recommendations of the Australian Law reform Commission’s 2018 Pathways to Justice report.
On average, it costs $110,000 per year to keep someone in prison. Over time, justice re-investment means fewer people will be in prison, more than paying for the up-front cost of the programs. It means less crime and savings for taxpayers.
Coronial inquests should lead to real and lasting change, preventing deaths in custody and saving lives.
Coronial inquests should be comprehensive and more inclusive, by ensuring that the voices of families and First Nations communities are heard.
Labor will provide specific standalone funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services to ensure First Nations families can access culturally appropriate, timely, and fair legal assistance before, during and after all coronial processes.
And Labor will establish consolidated real-time reporting of First Nations deaths in custody at a national level.
In government, Labor will convene a national summit bringing together First Nations and state and territory representatives to ensure coordinated action on First Nations deaths in custody.
Labor would work with the states and territories to set up a national process for real-time reporting of deaths in custody, with all deaths to be publicly reported within 24 hours.