Brooke Prentis reflects on the national statistics of incarceration rates of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander young people and invites you to take action for a better tomorrrow.
Nearly 18 months ago, I was invited to address a Queensland Parliamentary Committee regarding proposed changes to the Youth Justice Act that included, amongst other things: allowing repeat offenders’ information to be publicly published (aka “naming and shaming”); the creation of an additional offence for situations where a child commits a further offence while on bail; and the automatic transfer of children in juvenile detention to an adult prison when they turned 17, if they had six months or more left to serve in detention.
I sat in Queensland’s Parliament that day knowing that these proposed changes had been developed without consultation with the Aboriginal community, despite the fact that 66% of the young people in the Queensland juvenile detention centres are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and knowing that somehow I was the only Aboriginal person invited to speak that day.
Flash forward to now, 18 months after that day, and the legislation has been approved and implemented, and still there has been no reduction in the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in youth detention.
I hear that the Western Australian Government is proposing to do something very similar and I cannot help but shake my head. What else can I do? How do we find victory in this system? How do we have our voices heard? How do we turn the statistics around? So many questions.
I think the answer lies somewhere in the belief that we are stronger together. So today, I am writing to ask for your help.
At the time that I spoke to the Queensland Parliamentary Committee, I was shocked to discover that not one of my fellow Queenslanders that I spoke to had any idea about this legislation. Many didn’t even know that an offender could be sent to adult prison at 17 years of age under Qld law. Did you know?
Just this last week, I looked into Amnesty International’s campaign which is addressing similar legislative changes that are currently proposed in Western Australia, and also at Change The Record’s website which detail that statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates nationally. I again became aware that a lack of understanding still dominates this national issue.
At a state level, many Australians do not know that Aboriginal young people in WA are already 58 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous young people. At a national level, many Australians are unaware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander juveniles are 24 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous juveniles. And let us remember that juveniles are children. So what that sentence just said, is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 24 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous juveniles.
These statistics are the reality of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. But they are also the reality for all Australians. I am writing today to ask you to allow them to become your personal reality too. To allow this reality to compel you to listen to the voices of Aboriginal Christian Leaders and join with us by standing up and using your voice against these injustices. I want you to also know, these statistics mean something else. They mean something else because each of these statistics have names - they are loved children and grandchildren, sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews.
Many people are happy to talk about Reconciliation. I often say that if Reconciliation is to occur in this land then, as Aboriginal people, we can’t do it on our own. Reconciliation means standing together, side by side, not non-Indigenous people behind us or in front of us, but side by side, in truth, in justice and in love. Many Aboriginal people, myself included, sometimes struggle with the word Reconciliation. Reconciliation is meaningless without action. Will you take action and stand alongside us?
The laws proposed in WA, as they do in Qld, contravene the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Slogans like “if they’ve done the crime then they should do the time,” especially when coupled with statistics, can be used in the media to give the impression that Aboriginal kids simply do more crime. But these responses are too simplistic and do not allow space for questions like: If you could not afford to pay a parking fine, do you believe you should be sent to jail? If you are in the company of someone committing an offence and not doing anything wrong yourself, do you believe you should be sent to jail? If you had a mental illness and there was no one to care for you do you believe you should be sent to jail? These questions, not simplistic rhyming slogans, are the realities of our justice system for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Legislation like that which is proposed in WA and is now part of Qld’s law, only ends up “labelling young people as criminals incapable of reform and would leave them no pathways – except towards a prison cell” (Amnesty Australia). We can and must do better.
We must have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices heard and listened to in our states and territories, and in this country. Our government must have the courage to conduct proper, authentic, far-reaching and face-to-face consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders on these issues. We must all be serious about building our states, territories, and country for all Australians, based on respect, kindness and harmony. And if we do so, we might just actually build the Australia I dream of and pray for, an Australia that truly is based on truth, justice, love and hope.
Remember when I said I need your help? Well here’s some ways you can help:
- Make sure that you have signed up to receive regular updates via email about all that Common Grace is doing
- Sign Amnesty’s online petition
- Join the pledge to #changetherecord
- Take a #changetherecord selfie
- Uphold Amnesty International Australia in prayer as they take a lead in this work
- #geteducated on the facts
Let’s believe for a better tomorrow for this land now called Australia.
Brooke Prentis is Common Grace's Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Justice Team's Spokesperson. She is a descendant of the Waka Waka people, an activist for indigenous rights, a Christian pastor, and an accountant.