Calls for law reform
Ending jail time for unpaid fines, no driver’s licence suspension for fine defaults and repealing mandatory sentencing are some of the recommendations from a report to address the over-representation of indigenous people in prison.
The suggestions from the Australian Law Reform Commission were the result of a review looking at ways to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in jail.
In 2016, indigenous people made up 27 per cent of prisoners despite only making up about 2 per cent of Australia’s population.
WA had the highest rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal people, at 3383 prisoners per 100,000 persons.
The report was handed to the Attorney-General’s office in late December but was not tabled in Parliament until last week.
It recommends the establishment of an independent justice reinvestment body supported by State and Federal governments.
One recommendation was for the Commonwealth to establish a national inquiry into child protection laws and processes affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Australian Human Rights Commission Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner June Oscar said it was right behind the idea.
“This is unacceptable and is certainly contributing to our children being removed from their families and put into care in everincreasing numbers,” she said.
“We must embrace strategies aimed at early intervention and family supports within the child welfare and justice spaces.”
WA Labor Senator Pat Dodson, who was a commissioner during the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, said the reality of incarceration of first nations people in Australia was a crisis.
“National justice targets should include specific targets to reduce current incarceration statistics, which will allow a focus on justice reinvestment, community safety and preventing crime,” he said.
“In order to ensure change, justice targets must be implemented. “This report cannot be ignored and recommendations must play a key role in overdue reforms.”
Minister for Social Services Dan Tehan said the Federal Government welcomed the report but would not yet comment on its findings.
The report said the case of young Pilbara woman Ms Dhu, who died in a Hedland lock-up four years ago while paying off fines, illustrated “escalating impacts that minor offending can result in when combined with racial stereotypes, assumptions and discrimination by police”.
Fine default should not result imprisonment and the State and Territory governments should abolish provisions for imprisonment if there were unpaid fines, the report says.
WA Attorney-General John Quigley was not yet able to comment about the report and wasn’t able to give an update on WA’s reform of fine legislation by time of print.
But he did say the WA Government was committed to the introduction of a custody notification service, a key recommendation resulting from Ms Dhu’s death.
“A Custody Notification Service will be in operation in WA before the end of 2018,” Mr Quigley said.
“I have no doubt that this important service will save lives.”
Social justice commissioner June Oscar.