Rates of Indigenous imprisonment have soared despite sweeping reforms by the Keating government following the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. What has gone wrong?
Don Weatherburn is the Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. He is the author of two books and more than 180 articles, book chapters and reports on crime and criminal justice.
'[Weatherburn] was frustrated at the failure to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody after the royal commission into the issue, angry that the subject had disappeared from the news even as rates of Aboriginal imprisonment per head of population continued to rise and disappointed with the scholarly debate about its causes.
People had started out with this narrative about injustice,’ he says, ‘and it’s one of those cases when the premises of the argument are true but the conclusion is wrong. Yes, there was injustice but that’s not the reason why we have Aboriginal over-representation in prisons, not in the main.’
He says it is clear that violence in Aboriginal communities is rife and the principal victims are Aborigines.
— Excerpt from ‘Bringing reality to rhetoric on crime’, Mark Dapin interviewing author Don Weatherburn about Arresting incarceration, published by Aboriginal Studies Press, February 2014, News Review, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 2014.
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Reviews and endorsements
'This is a provocative and courageous book by a well-respected criminologist, offering a critique of the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody and of the programs and approaches that are attempting to ameliorate the situation…All Australians owe it to Indigenous Australians to reduce these rates of incarceration.'
— Dr Maggie Brady, CAEPR, ANU
'Dr Weatherburn’s review of the data on the causes and consequences of the criminalisation and imprisonment of Aborigines makes for sober reading. He has assembled this data and situated it a way that makes it accessible as a reference to the changes yet persistence of high rates of Aboriginal involvement in crime and punishment over the past half century. The book brings together data on mental health, substance abuse, school attendance, employment and other survey data that bears on the Aboriginal imprisonment experience. In the face of negative outcomes across a range of social indicators for Aborigines he remains positive about the prospects for a decline in Aboriginal incarceration if the focus of reform shifts to both broader and system specific goals. Reforms to bail laws and efforts to reduce recidivism are key criminal justice system responses. While focusing on very young mothers, and offenders is advocated but with an emphasis on promoting child development, reduction in substance abuse and better school attendance. The need to engage in the real economy through greater workplace participation rather than rhetoric about empowerment and more ‘sit down’ money is also crucial. Finally Weatherburn reviews some of the clumsy theorizing that have been at the centre of the debates about the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in our criminal justice system since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Death in Custody in the early 1990s.'
— Rod Broadhurst, Professor of Criminology, ANU
'There may be no issue more intractable in contemporary Australian politics than Indigenous imprisonment. In this outstanding new study Don Weatherburn confronts the data, appalling as they are, with his characteristic plain speaking and good sense. No excuses are offered, or simple solutions applied. Instead we are shown the dimensions of the problem, and led to consider the fundamentals that need addressing in reducing the levels of imprisonment. The answers, he suggests, lie less in the criminal justice system than in the conditions of life that result in two-thirds of Indigenous prisoners being incarcerated for serious criminal offences. Yet why is so much money spent on intervention programs that don’t work and are rarely evaluated? Weatherburn draws on decades of learning from the research literature of criminology, developmental psychology and crime prevention to show what ‘closing the gap’ now demands of any government seeking to redress a national shame.'
— Mark Finnane, ARC Australian Professorial Fellow, Griffith University
'Weatherburn’s work provides the blueprint for all future government policy that genuinely aims to tackle Aboriginal overrepresentation in prisons…The idea is simple: to achieve Aboriginal sociopolitical empowerment, we first need to break down the barriers to this such as low school attendance, unemployment and substance abuse. What are we waiting for? Everyone should read Weatherburn's book and get on with it.'
— Sheryn Omeri, Barrister, (England and Wales), former criminal solicitor at the Aboriginal Legal Services (NSW/ACT) Ltd