Australia’s attorney general condemns as unacceptable a surge in young Aboriginal prisoners

CANBERRA, Australia – Australia’s attorney general on Tuesday condemned as unacceptable the burgeoning number of young Aboriginal prisoners that a parliamentary report branded a “national crisis.”

Aboriginal children are 28 times more likely than other young Australians to be sent to a juvenile detention centre, according to the report on indigenous youth in the criminal justice system released Monday.

Attorney General Robert McClelland said the “alarming statistics” would redouble his efforts with state governments to find alternatives to jail, particularly for less serious offences such as failure to pay fines and unlicensed driving.

“The rate of incarceration of indigenous Australians is plainly unacceptable,” he said.

“There has been an increasing trend with law and order severity which I think the general community accepts, particularly in respect to violent crimes, but I think locking people up for fine defaults and driving offences in circumstances where Aborigines in remote communities … find it almost impossible to get a driver’s license is really taking that philosophy far too far,” he said.

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The report comes as the government strives to close the life expectancy gap of more than a decade between Aborigines and other Australians by addressing poor health, unemployment, low education levels, and alcohol and drug abuse among indigenous people.

While Aborigines make up an impoverished minority of only 2.5 per cent of Australia’s population of 22 million, 25 per cent of the nation’s prisoners are indigenous.

Incarceration rates are far worse for the young, with Aboriginal children accounting for 59 per cent of inmates in Australian juvenile detention centres.

“The overrepresentation of indigenous youth in the criminal justice system is a national crisis,” the report said.

In the past decade alone, the imprisonment rate for Aborigines has soared 66 per cent, the report said.

The 346-page report by a committee of seven government and opposition lawmakers specializing in indigenous issues made 40 wide-ranging recommendations that attack many underlying causes for young indigenous Australians getting in trouble with police.

Paul Henderson, chief minister of the Northern Territory, which has Australia’s highest proportion of Aborigines, said his government would crack down on alcohol abuse by banning problem drinkers from buying it beginning next month.

“The vast majority of indigenous people who find themselves in jail are there because of alcohol-fueled and alcohol-related crime,” Henderson told reporters.

“If you don’t crack down on alcohol, you don’t improve indigenous incarceration rates,” he said.

Wayne Martin, chief justice of the Western Australia Supreme Court, said the report made “depressing reading,” but was not surprising.

“The one thing you can conclude, I think, from the way the figures are getting steadily worse is that whatever the solutions are, we haven’t yet found them,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

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