If we’re all equal, why are there so many Indigenous people in prison?

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“Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated people on Earth.”

When Indigenous lawyer, academic and land rights activist Noel Pearson made this claim while speaking on ABC’s Q&A in May 2017, most people thought he was exaggerating and called on experts to #FactCheck it.

And while it does seem an abysmal claim to make, a resulting fact check by The Conversation proved his claim was spot on.

The US Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported that the US has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world (in number and by percentage of population). In the US, it is specifically the African-American people who are the most incarcerated by percentage of their population – with 2,207 people living in prison per 100,000 people.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Indigenous Australians have an even higher rate of incarceration – 2,346 Aboriginal Australians are living in prison per 100,000 Aboriginal people.

“We’ve made progress in the last 50 years, but some of the profound indicators of our problems – children alienated from parents, the most incarcerated people on the planet Earth, and youths in great numbers in detention – obviously speak to a structural problem,” Pearson said on Q&A.

How big of a deal is this, really?

If you throw Australia’s non-Indigenous population into your calculations, Australia isn’t doing too badly. We have 169 adults incarcerated per 100,000, making us equal 85th on the World Prison Brief’s list alongside Mexico.

However, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the extraordinary number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners is nowhere near proportionate to the percentage of our total population that they represent.

Data from June 2016 shows the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison was 2,346 per 100,000 – while the non-Indigenous imprisonment rate was just 154 prisoners per 100,000.

That means that although First Australians make up just 3 per cent of the national population, they make up more than a quarter of total prisoners.

When it crunched the numbers further, the ABS found the most common offences Indigenous Australians were likely to commit were “acts intended to cause injury” (33 per cent), followed by “unlawful entry with intent” (15 per cent), “offences against justice” and “robbery and extortion”.

The Australian Law Reform Commission notes the “exorbitant crime and commission rates … are not confined to serious or violent crimes. At least in recent times, a high proportion of Aboriginal offences has been of a minor, repetitive, and sometimes even trivial character”.

Most inmates, it would seem, are not axe-wielding murderers. Many fall into a prison cycle from offences as simple as driving without a license in a remote area where there is no easy access to a Roads and Maritime Authority office.

Rates of incarceration are even more worrying among young people, with 10 to 17-year-old Aboriginal people about 24 times more likely to be in juvenile detention than a non-Aboriginal person of the same age.

“This is a national crisis and requires an immediate response,” Change the Record co-chair Shane Duffy told the Australian Associate Press in April 2015, while calling on state and federal governments to address the incarceration rate.

Why do so many Indigenous people go to jail?

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, there are a range of factors. Misuse of alcohol, socio-economic disadvantage, childhood exposure to violence and abuse, the younger age profile of the Indigenous population, previous involvement with the criminal justice system and psychological distress are just a few on its list.

That said, experts say our justice system often hinders, rather than helps, rehabilitation.

“Legal advocates say a mix of tougher bail laws, racial prejudice, better detection methods and under investment in diversionary programs is contributing to the problem”, wrote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kelsey Munro earlier this year.

“We have postcode justice,” Sarah Hopkins, Managing Solicitor of justice projects at the Aboriginal Legal Service in NSW, was quoted as saying.

“Diversionary options are not available across all of NSW, particularly in regional and remote areas, so courts are unable to divert people from prison. This does impact disproportionately on Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people who live in these communities.”

Here’s a good point to call out the elephant in the room for those who are still reading. Prejudice probably still has a part to play in the high rate of arrests of Indigenous people for relatively minor offences.

What can be done to help?

A 1991 royal commission examining Aboriginal deaths in custody found the major contributing factor to high rates of incarceration was the social, cultural and economic disadvantage and inequality Indigenous people have been subject to since white settlers first arrived in Australia.

Interestingly, a study by Deloitte Access Economics found government could save $111,000 per offender per year by diverting non-violent Indigenous offenders with drug problems into treatment instead of sending them straight to prison.

That’s probably a good start.

The Australian Law Reform Commission is also currently reviewing the incarceration rates, having launched a discussion paper in July 2017 and accepted submissions until September 2017.