Governments have been told to scrap mandatory prison sentences for minor crimes to keep Indigenous Australians who commit traffic offences and small-time theft out of jails.
Australian Bar Association president Patrick O’Sullivan has met with federal Attorney-General George Brandis in the hope of tackling over-representation of indigenous people in the nation’s prisons.
The association wants laws that force mandatory sentences on minor assaults, driving offences and minor theft, repealed or amended.
More than a quarter of Australia’s prisoners are indigenous, despite making up less than three per cent of the population.
“It is a shocking fact that an indigenous young person who has served a prison sentence is more likely to return to prison than finish school,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
“Australia’s indigenous incarceration rate is one of the most challenging human rights issues facing the country today.”
And the problem is getting worse.
A recent Australian Institute of Criminology report found, in the two decades since a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the proportion of indigenous people in prison has doubled.
In the Northern Territory a person convicted of an assault, who had previously fronted court for a minor offence, faces a 12-month mandatory sentence.
The court has no flexibility to impose a lesser sentence.
The association is also calling for a review of imprisonment for fine defaults – which it describes as unjust, unfair to poor offenders, dangerous to vulnerable offenders, expensive and disproportionate in its effect on indigenous offenders.
It says indigenous imprisonment costs about $3 billion each year and a 10 per cent reduction would save $10 million that could be channelled into rehabilitation programs, like community housing.
Mr O’Sullivan will also meet with state attorneys-general throughout the year.