The exceptionally high rate of incarceration among indigenous Australians requires a policy response that does not compromise equality before the law or community safety.
Over the past decade, the national prison population rose by 43 per cent, with more than a third of this growth the result of more indigenous Australians being incarcerated. Indigenous Australians are incarcerated at 12.5 times the rate of the non-indigenous. This statistic should be read against a complex background of higher offending rates, including higher rates of violent offending, and under performance on all metrics of socio-economic wellbeing.
This issue is back on the national agenda following the release last week of the Australian Law Reform Commission’ report on indigenous incarceration, Pathways to Justice. This is a welcome contribution to the debate around criminal justice reform in Australia.
Unfortunately, however, the report makes some recommendations that would undermine the bedrock principle of equality before the law. There are policy options available to governments that do not infringe on this principle, some of which are also recommended in the report, and these should be preferred.
The most objectionable recommendation of the report is that indigenous status should be considered as a factor in sentencing, on the premise that special notice should be taken of socio-economic disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.