Throughout Australia, crime rates have decreased, but the incarceration rate – particularly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – has increased dramatically.
Despite making up only 3 percent of the population, Indigenous people are 28 percent of the prison population.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, Indigenous youths are 25 times more likely than non-Indigenous young people to be placed in juvenile detention centres, in which – as the Don Dale scandal revealed – they face degrading and abusive treatment.
In fact, young Aboriginal people are more likely to be thrown into prison than to attend university.
The high incarceration rate results from mandatory sentencing for minor offences coupled with the racist over-policing of communities. Aboriginal people are jailed disproportionately for the “crime” of swearing in public, for failing to pay parking fines and for other minor infractions.
The dazzling rates of incarceration occur against a backdrop of poverty and homelessness – which affects about one-quarter of Indigenous people.
Not only are Aboriginal people often targeted by police, but, once arrested, economic disadvantage often affects their ability to meet bail or get a lawyer, which means they are more likely to stay in prison on remand or to be sentenced unfairly due to poor legal representation.
The problems are not the result of poor life decisions – they are a result of government policy.
Take housing. The Turnbull government’s most recent budget has allocated no funding for housing in remote Indigenous communities. This is the first time that remote housing has been left unfunded in a federal budget since 1967 – the year Australia voted to count Aboriginal people in the census.
The lack of funding will likely increase homelessness and chronic overcrowding of houses in remote communities, and may cause the loss of local construction jobs, causing higher unemployment.
Indigenous people are harder hit by the lack of growth in public housing stock, because they earn, on average, just 70 percent of the wages of non-Indigenous people and have an unemployment rate almost twice as high.
In Australia, public housing comprises only 4 percent of all housing, compared to 15 percent in the United Kingdom.
But rather than invest in housing and other services, governments continue to oversee mass incarceration.