INCARCERATION rates among indigenous peoples in Australia are a “major human rights concern” and far behind those of other developed nations, the UN said.
A UN special rapporteur said the government must consider more comprehensive human rights legislation to protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
In a preliminary report delivered to the Australian government on Monday, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, highlighted the growing indigenous incarceration rate, calling the statistics “astounding.”
While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up only 3 percent of the total population, they constitute 27 percent of the prison population, and much more in some prisons, the report details.
The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continues to rise and is expected to reach 50 percent of the prison population by 2020.
Tauli-Corpuz visited Cleveland Youth Detention Centre in Townsville, Queensland, while on her 14-day research trip, and said the rate at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth were detained was “disconcerting.”
Indigenous youth made up an alarming 95 percent of the children detained there, many of whom had gone straight from child protection care to detention.
“I was concerned to hear that there were still children aged 17 being held in adult prisons,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “I strongly encourage Australia to withdraw its reservation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and ensure that no children are held together with adults.”
The report highlighted that the majority of the detained children had committed minor and often non-violent offences but were detained in “punitive, rather than rehabilitative” conditions.
“They are essentially being punished for being poor and in most cases, prison will only aggravate the cycle of violence, poverty and crime,” Tauli-Corpuz said, before going on to say that meeting with young children, some only 12 years old, in detention was the most disturbing element of her visit.
According to the report, the reasons for the high rate of incarceration among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are manifold.
While the historic and socio-economic determinants play a big role, the report points out the damage that current laws and policies, and the disproportionate impact they have on the Indigenous population, are contributing to the problem.
The paperless arrest laws in the Northern Territory, which allow police to detain a person for several hours if they have committed or are suspected to have committed a minor offence, has led to a dramatic increase in the number of Aboriginals in police custody, the report says.
The increasingly restrictive bail laws used in most states and the mandatory sentencing laws have also led to a significant increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders kept in detention and held on remand.
Tauli-Corpuz called for an immediate review of the sentencing laws and urged the current inquiry by the Australian Law Reform Commission into the incarceration of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander peoples to “help identify laws which need to be amended to reduce such incarceration.”
The report also highlighted the cuts in funding for legal services as having a major impact on Aboriginal people who “have higher rates of unmet legal needs.”
To tackle the problem, not just of incarceration but that of racial discrimination, healthcare, land rights and women’s rights, Tauli-Corpuz said the government needed to develop a comprehensive human rights legislative framework which would provide stronger protection for the rights of indigenous peoples.
“I urge the Government to use this momentum to reset the relationship with the First Nations of Australia and in a collaborative manner construct a new joint pathway to the future,” she said.