West Australia Police Commissioner Chris Dawson says Aboriginal communities should be allowed to take responsibility for punishing and “shaming” juvenile offenders in a bid to stop them from being dragged through the criminal justice system.
Mr Dawson, the former chief executive of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, said he was not advocating “straight payback”, but warned a change of approach was needed to tackle high rates of youth imprisonment.
“If in the Aboriginal cultural context they are held to account in front of their community elders and their family, and it brings shame on them — which is a big issue in Aboriginal culture — how much more effective would that be in correcting a child’s behaviour than carting them hundreds of kilometres to a children’s court?” he said.
“I’m not suggesting that this thing needs to be a brand new justice system. I’m just saying we need to actually adapt to a way in which … an Aboriginal child can be dealt with in a way that is both culturally appropriate but also accountable and it means something.
“And it means that they’re not going to continue the pathway of repeat offending and clocking up hundreds of children’s court convictions until the age of 18, and continue that journey until a point that the court says ‘You’re going to be punished and you’re going to be imprisoned’.”
Closing the Gap targets released this year include the reduction of the number of young people in detention by 30 per cent by 2031. On an average night in Western Australia, according to figures for the June 2019 quarter, 57 of every 10,000 young Indigenous Australians were detained.
That was 49 times the rate of non-Indigenous incarceration in the state, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data released earlier this year.
The AIHW figures also showed 57 per cent of people aged between 10-17 in detention were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. That’s despite Indigenous Australians making up just 6 per cent of the population of that age.
Mr Dawson said communities needed to use the right authority figure. “It is probably easier in a country, regional and remote community than it is in the big cities,” he said. “I am not saying it can’t work in big cities, but where the culture and the respect is much more visible and recognised I would like to see that advanced in a way that can do more than just put a dent into this cycle of recidivism and one which we’ve got to really advance. I think parties are willing.”
Some remote communities in the state are already exercising local authority with the knowledge and support of Mr Dawson and WA Police.
In May, authorities in the outback town of Newman acted with his knowledge when they supervised community punishment for the grandfather of an Indigenous boy charged with the murder of a young Indigenous woman.
Relatives of the dead girl travelled from the remote Pilbara community of Jigalong to hit the grandfather with sticks. Tensions in the town then eased.
“I am not at all suggesting that we adopt a straight payback approach … but I think if we can put that into a modern framework and say ‘Well, wouldn’t it be better if we can actually get the right cultural practices that sit within our entire justice system,” Mr Dawson said.
He revealed his hopes for a new way of dealing with Indigenous youth offenders as he rolls out significant changes inside the WA Police. He has boosted the state’s intake of Indigenous police cadets, takes guidance from a recently established panel of senior Indigenous people and in 2018 apologised to Aboriginal people on behalf of the WA Police for past wrongs, including the role of officers in child removals.
Under past policies, it was police who had the job of finding and removing Aboriginal children from their parents at the government’s behest.
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