As the ALRC Report mentions, the fundamental causes of over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody are not located within the criminal justice system. The issue must be seen in its social and historical context. Social determinants of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples include education and employment, health and disability, housing and homelessness, and child protection and youth justice. These are areas where law firms can and do play a role in improving conditions.
For example, most large firms now have Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) that aim to increase access to opportunities for education, build capacity in communities, increase employment opportunities and recognise, respect and celebrate Aboriginal culture. Work done in accordance with these RAPs helps strengthen Aboriginal society which in turn reduces the risk of incarceration.
Closer to the criminal law system, it is important to note that over the years many lawyers have directly helped the Aboriginal Legal Services based in each State and Territory.
Work has been done to strengthen organisational capacity and efficiency and to help draft law reform submissions, and many barristers have given of their time to represent Aboriginal people in difficult criminal law matters. This work is more important than ever. In fact, the ALRC recommendations open up new opportunities to work with Aboriginal organisations to help drive law reform to maintain the momentum arising from the public release of the ALRC report.
Submissions to State and Territory governments need to be drafted to articulate the legislative and policy changes that should be made. This is work that could be done by firms working together with an ALS.
For example, important work could be done to advocate for implementation of the ALRC’s recommendations that mandatory sentencing regimes should be repealed, and that fine defaulters should not be able to be imprisoned.
This work if successful could have a real impact on what is one of Australia’s great issues of shame: imprisonment due to social injustice rather than criminality. If you would like an introduction to an ALS, please don’t hesitate to contact us.