First Nations people trapped by stacked system

Wednesday 31 May, 2023

The Inquiry into Tasmanian Adult Imprisonment and Youth Detention Matters is currently on foot. Submissions were due at the end of March, and public hearings will be occurring over the following months.

In Tasmania, Aboriginal people make up 23% of the prison population. Five per cent of Tasmania’s population are Aboriginal. This is a staggering over-representation in detention.

Factors such as poor health, unemployment, limited education, intergenerational incarceration, previous imprisonment, substance abuse and mental illness are risk factors correlated with imprisonment.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Services (TALS) clients often have difficulty in meeting bail and corrections requirements due to their geographic location and lack of public transport. We have seen the direct impact of poverty and social isolation on Aboriginal community members - not having enough money to attend a doctor to get medication or a mental health care plan.

In Tasmania, there are currently no specific Aboriginal bail support programs and limited Aboriginal specific programs to address the underlying causes of offending.

We also regularly hear that clients who are on the Court Mandated Diversion Program cannot afford to get to appointments, as they live remotely and the bus costs too much, even using a concession card. Clients on the northwest coast are regularly assessed as unsuitable for the program due to where they live. There are no community service sites currently available in Smithton. This is untenable, it leads to further offending to meet requirements or a sense of hopelessness in being unable to change one’s position.

Many of our clients face challenges being granted parole due to inadequate housing. In 2021-2022, out of 303 parole applications received, 73 had to be adjourned due to not having access to suitable housing.

There are other issues for Tasmanian Aboriginal people, including:

Disability - Tasmania does not make proper provision for persons who are interviewed by Tasmania Police unlike other jurisdictions. There is limited independent protection to assess a person’s capacity prior to interview with police.

Mental health - It has been well documented that poor mental health is associated with a greater risk of criminal justice system involvement. Poor mental health among children and young people, as well as among their parents or caregivers, is a key risk factor for Tasmanian Aboriginal children and young people’s contact with the youth justice system. There are a lack of appropriate mental health supports for young people and the Ashley Youth Detention Centre is so often used as a holding cell. We see that clients who have both mental health issues and drug issues are unable to get help as the case is to complex as they bounce between services who are unable to assist.

Housing – The housing crisis in Tasmania means that many people exiting prison do not have anywhere to live. Less than 10 Tasmanians exiting prison, youth detention or remand were housed in public or community housing over the last three years and none in the last year. In addition, substandard and inadequate housing can lead to poor health, which is an underlying cause of incarceration. Aboriginal families who struggle with stable accommodation and experience family breakdowns are more likely to have contact with the child safety system.

Child Protection - Children in the child safety system, particularly those in out-of-home care are at significantly higher risk of contact with the youth justice system. On an average day in 2020-2021, there were a daily average of 1,080 children in out of home care in Tasmania. Thirty-nine per cent of these children were Aboriginal.

In TALS’ submission to the Report, we made three recommendations:

  1. The Tasmanian Government should increase investment in evidence-based prevention and early intervention services, such as housing and mental health support services, to prevent offending and reoffending.
  2. The Government should provide long-term and stable funding to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) to deliver pre- and post-release programs, including transitional housing programs run by ACCOs to support youth, men and Aboriginal women leaving prison.
  3. The Government must work with Aboriginal organisations to develop and provide culturally appropriate transitional housing and support for Aboriginal people exiting prison.

Racism and poverty are the key drivers of mass incarceration, thereby perpetuating a cycle. The overrepresentation of Aboriginal people with low incomes in the criminal justice system is no accident. It is a direct result of racist “law-and-order” policies and the criminalization of poverty.

The Tasmanian Parliament and the Government must ensure that properly resourced, effective, and objective mechanisms are in place to ensure the scrutiny, transparency, and accountability of all justice agencies, and to protect the rights of persons in the Justice system, particularly within custodial and institutional settings.

Recognising Indigenous over-representation and vulnerability, these must include culturally appropriate and community-delivered supervision and scrutiny of the safety and wellbeing of all Aboriginal persons and the protection of their rights, and of the performance of the Tasmanian Government and its agencies in delivering the commitments of Closing the Gap.

Media contact: A.Mark Thomas, M&M Communications, 0422 006 732

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