Justice targets won’t help Indigenous incarceration rates

SH jail indigenous prison 1Pressure is mounting for the Prime Minister to introduce Indigenous justice targets. But having targets for other social indicators hasn’t helped improve them. Ten years have passed since the Closing the Gap campaign was launched and only one of the seven targets is on track to be met — Year 12 attainment.

There is no doubt Indigenous incarceration rates are unacceptably high. Indigenous people account for a quarter of the prison population in Australia and the situation is even worse for Indigenous youth.  According to the latest AIHW report, 59% of juveniles in detention are Indigenous, despite Indigenous young people only making up 6% of the population aged 10-17.

Having a target to aim for may make people feel they are doing something to address these appalling statistics, but there is little evidence to suggest it will help reduce the number of Indigenous people going to jail. If the government is serious about lowering the Indigenous incarceration rate, it needs to focus on strategies that will actually help reduce offending and reoffending.

The rise in Indigenous incarceration rates is often attributed to institutional racism, with the popular narrative being police unfairly target Indigenous people, particularly youth. But while this may sometimes be the case, it is not the underlying reason behind the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in jail.

The only way to reduce the incarceration rate is to reduce the number of Indigenous people committing crimes. The best way to do that is by improving Indigenous education and employment outcomes. Unemployment is a greater risk factor for offending than being Indigenous — with unemployed Indigenous people 20 times more likely to go to jail than Indigenous people who are employed. Latest statistics also indicate that there is no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with a University degree.

If the government was actually making headway on its Closing the Gap targets, the Indigenous incarceration rate would be going down.  Rather than introducing yet another target, the government should try to achieve its existing ones.