Flat White

Aboriginal imprisonment: don’t confuse a social issue with a justice issue

13 April 2021

1:46 PM

13 April 2021

1:46 PM

Those who insist that too many indigenous people are in jail confuse a social issue with a justice issue, and so make both issues worse.

West Australian Police Commissioner Chris Dawson is the latest public official to demand indigenous incarceration rates be reduced.

He told The Australian newspaper yesterday: “Too many (indigenous people) are being arrested and charged.”

It’s hard to imagine what law-abiding West Australians must think when hearing their top cop complain that police are arresting too many criminals.

Although, to be fair, that’s not exactly what he suggested. It was more along the lines that police were arresting too many of the wrong kinds of criminals.

There was an “over-representation” of indigenous people in the state’s prisons, he said.

Well, he is absolutely right if the point of the justice system is to ensure that the number of different kinds of people behind bars is more or less proportionate to their numbers in the wider community.

As a side note, if indigenous people are over-represented in prison it begs the question as to which group is under-represented. Which ethnicity should law enforcement police harder in order to balance things out? But I digress.

Unless West Australian police are going around arresting people for being indigenous – which plainly they are not – then the only explanation for the disproportionate number of indigenous people in prison is that indigenous people are committing a disproportionately high number of crimes.


And if that is the case, then indigenous people are not over-represented, but accurately represented in jail.

But no one wants to say that.

So, instead, we say that police have arrested, and the courts have jailed, too many indigenous criminals. That’s far easier to say because it saves us from insisting that people ought take personal responsibility for their decisions whilst giving us the chance to yell “racism” and so prove we are not racists.

Now you might imagine that an easy way to avoid being arrested and charged is to obey the law. But such ideas are too simple for those in public office to entertain.

Commissioner Dawson blamed his own police force for the high number of Aboriginals in jail saying “we are not doing enough” to divert offenders from arrest and court and prison.

I wish police would blame themselves when I am caught speeding. But again, I digress. (See how insisting that a social issue among indigenous people is a justice issue only serves to undermine faith in the justice system whilst doing zero to fix the social issue?)

It does not seem to occur to Commissioner Dawson that, just as it would be racist to put people in jail because they are Aboriginal it would also be racist to divert criminals from jail because they are Aboriginal. Again, holding any kind of public office seems to prevent obvious thoughts from occurring. 

Commissioner Dawson did say that “a crime is a crime,” which would have momentarily heartened victims of crime because let’s face it, the skin colour of the thief who steals your car doesn’t change the fact that your car is missing from the driveway and you’re rightly mad as hell. 

But having insisted that “crime is a crime” the Commissioner then went on to insist that the justice system should play social worker by treating some crimes as something other than crimes depending on the ancestry of the criminal.

He said young Aboriginal offenders should be dealt with by leaders within the Aboriginal community.

“It would allow a child here to be dealt with by Aboriginal leaders, exposing them to the shame and sanction of their own communities,” he said.

Now I’m just asking for a friend, but are these the same communities where sexual assault and domestic violence is thirty to fifty times higher than in the broader community? And just how are the Aboriginal leaders dealing with that problem right now?

At every public event we pause to “acknowledge elders past, present and emerging”. I always wonder where they are and what they’re doing.

But a better question is why the police chief is talking about the role of community leaders rather than the responsibility of parents.

That’s not a police siren you hear. That’s the sound of crickets.

If the Police Commissioner wants to involve indigenous leaders, he might like to involve Alice Springs Deputy Mayor Jacinta Price, a rare public official who does not choke on the obvious.

Writing in The Australian last week she said: “No amount of adjusting targets to reduce incarceration by developing race-based legislation will prevent crime. As long as there are no targets to reduce family violence and the abuse and neglect of our children, incarceration rates will continue to climb.”

Jacinta Price is, as usual, spot on. When you confuse social issues with justice issues you only end up undermining confidence in the justice system while allowing social dysfunction to grow ever worse.

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