Proposed Stronger Futures law will put more Indigenous people in jail

7th Feb 2012

The Australian Lawyers Alliance said today that the federal government’s proposed Stronger Futures legislation will continue to erode Indigenous advancement and increase the Indigenous jail population.

In its 54-page submission, to a federal Parliamentary Inquiry into the legislation, the ALA has earmarked dozens of aspects of the legislation (due to be presented to parliament on February 29) which impose prison penalties for minor crimes.

ALA National President, Greg Barns, said that many of the measures criminalising conduct in the proposed legislation are regressive and smack of paternalism - the ALA believes they hark back to the destructive days of the Aboriginal Protection Board.

“For example, the proposed Stronger Futures would imprison, for up to six months, any Indigenous person found carrying alcohol into a proscribed area; and up to 18 months those found carrying more than 1.35 litres of alcohol,” Mr Barns said.

“Under the proposed laws, judges are also forbidden to consider customary law in sentencing. No other group has been singled out in such a manner – with judges being able to take family background into consideration when deciding on appropriate sentences.

"Indigenous community stores will also be subject to far greater centralised scrutiny and compulsory documentation than any other small business in Australia. Failure to present these on demand will result in heavy fines and potential loss of an operating licence.

“These measures stand in stark contrast to viable alternatives suggested by Indigenous people, themselves, such as, subsidising refrigerated freight costs so more fresh fruit and vegetables can be transported into those communities to improve health.

"Racist in design, Stronger Futures, like its forerunner the National Emergency Response Act, also flouts its obligations under international law by continuing to separate Indigenous rights from the rights of others. This is in breach of Article 1 (4) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” Mr Barns said.

“Too much determination and interpretation of the law will also rest with the Commonwealth Minister, under the proposed legislation, rather than an independent Indigenous authority, more culturally equipped to make such decisions,” he said.

Mr Barns said the entire Stronger Futures consultation process had been defective with Indigenous communities not properly engaged, no transcripts of meetings kept; an insufficient number of translators engaged; and notification of the upcoming bill given just before the Christmas holiday period when scrutiny was greatly reduced.

Stronger Futures is obvious spin. The authors are dressing existing damaging Northern Territory intervention legislation in different policy guise to make it more marketable,” Mr Barns said.

“What this means is that, if this law goes through, the Australian taxpayer will be funding something just as damaging as the Northern Territory intervention, likely to exacerbate Indigenous health and social issues, and change little but letterhead,” he said.

“According to Northern Territory Quarterly Crime and Justice Statistics since the intervention was introduced in 2007, 30 per cent more Indigenous people have been sent to jail and the ABS reported in September last year that Indigenous Imprisonment in the NT jumped 11 percent from July 2010 to June 30 2011.

"Nationally, a quarter of Australia’s prison population is Indigenous; deaths in custody continue at the same rate, if not more, than they did 20 years ago when a Royal Commission was held; and yet nothing has been done to properly address social disadvantage, which is at the heart of Indigenous problems – rather politicians continue to intervene without doing their homework,” Mr Barns said.

Relevant links

  • Closing the Gap Clearing House report showing local health initiatives are the best way to advance Indigenous Communities.
  • NT Government statistics on Indigenous incarceration.
  • Alternative to the Intervention.

Tags: Northern Territory Discrimination Indigenous rights Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory