The Black Lives Matter movement has awakened many pressing conversations concerning underlying issues within the Indigenous Australian community. It has resonated with many social injustices, specifically, over policing, systematic racism and the disproportionate rates of Indigenous incarceration in Australia.
Despite Indigenous Australians accounting for only 3.3% of the national population, they constitute 28% of the national prison population. A research report published by economist and Labor MP, Andrew Leigh, shows Indigenous Australians are more likely to be imprisoned than African Americans. This led Leigh, to grimly warn that the 130% increase in Australia’s incarceration rates from 1985 to 2018, foreshadows a “second convict age” for Australia.
Keenan Mundine is an Indigenous advocate and founder of Deadly Connections Community and Justice Services. He says raising the age of criminal responsibility in Australia from 10 years of age to 14 will reduce the amount of young people being exposed to the criminal justice system at a young age.
“I grew up around the wrong crowd in Redfern and I paid the price for that,” says Mundine who spent 15 years in and out of the prison system.
“Going through the juvenile system and then the adult system was a real eye-opener for me. Once I got out of jail, I had a few TAFE certificates, but I didn’t have a bank account, a TFN, I didn’t work a day in my life and I didn’t have anyone I could go to for support”.
Mundine, who leads the Partnerships and Marketing department of Deadly Connections initiates community-led responses to break the cycle of reoffending, by engaging with local at-risk Indigenous youth through mentoring and socialising programs.
Mundine’s passionate advocacy for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised has seen him address the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. He says the Australian government needs to be doing more to help young Indigenous Australians thrive in life.
“At the age of 14, I came in contact with the criminal justice system. I was unsupported and still not addressing the childhood trauma that I went through and at age 15 I became addicted to smoking heroin.”
Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show that Indigenous children are 24 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous children. According to some legal reports the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric and the over-policing of Indigenous communities throughout the Northern Territory and Queensland, coupled with the ‘paperless arrests’ has contributed to an increase in Indigenous Australians being incarcerated.
“Children don’t need to be exposed to the prison environment from a young age and treated like a criminal and given a criminal record because that criminal record follows the child into adulthood and it is very unlikely for those people to achieve gainful employment because there are no pathways for people to achieve meaningful employment with criminal records,” Mundine says.
The disparity in the way Indigenous Australians are treated is highlighted through data compiled by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research which shows 82.5% of Indigenous people found with a non-indictable quantity of cannabis were pursued through the courts. This was compared with only 52.29% for the non-Indigenous population.
Despite strong evidence supporting the counterproductive nature of over-policing, which leads to an increased chance of getting arrested for minor crimes, it is still prevalent in many Indigenous communities. Combined with factors such as poverty in low socio-economic regions, it often results in the inability of many Indigenous Australians to pay fines or bail, leading them to spend time behind bars and ultimately sowing seeds for future problems within communities.
The Northern Territory has the largest proportion of its population who are Aboriginal, while also having the highest imprisonment rate in Australia among both adults and children. Mundine says from his experience, imprisoning minors is more likely to contribute to recidivism.
“They get introduced to the prison system when they’re young and the perpetual cycle follows them throughout their life because they get done for something minor and are detained on remand in juvenile detention.”