Unfinished business: Koori women and the justice system
is being launched to-day by Jill Gallagher, AO,
CEO oft the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health.
More Koori women are going to prison in Victoria than ever before, with Koori women now comprising the fastest growing segment of the Victorian prison population, yet appropriate diversionary options have yet to be established to prevent this rise.
A new report, Unfinished business, launched today by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, brings together stories of Koori women from their first contact with the justice system, through imprisonment and after release and makes recommendations about how to address inequity in the system. Twice as many Koori women are now in prison compared to five years ago.
Acting Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Chris Humphreys said that Unfinished business shows that despite more than 20 years of national and Victorian government policies attempting to respond to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison, there are no culturally appropriate diversionary options in Victoria for Koori women to address the rising incarceration rates.
Unfinished business identified that most Koori women prisoners share a similar profile: they are generally young mothers who have grown up experiencing family violence, sexual abuse and intergenerational trauma. Homelessness before and after prison is also common.
"We know that eight out of ten Koori women in Victorian prisons are mothers. Their incarceration has significant, harmful impacts upon their children. Unless we act now, the number of Koori women at risk of entering prison is likely to grow markedly in the coming years – perpetuating the existing cycle of intergenerational disadvantage and inequality and at great cost to the Victorian community," Mr Humphreys said.
"The Commission is calling for an investment in cultural and gender specific diversionary programs for Koori women – because we know it works. These programs exist for Koori men and non-Koories, but are lacking for Koori women, which offends the right to equality before the law," Mr Humphreys said.
"This report clearly highlights the pressing need for appropriate diversionary options for Koori women, including appropriate residential options. We know that having a safe place that recognises Koori women's cultural needs is vital to reversing the trend of increasing imprisonment. The current lack of pre (and post) sentence residential options is a significant barrier to Koori women staying out of jail."
Mr Humphreys said that if we are going to be serious about tackling the increasing incarceration of Koori women we also need to take into account their unique circumstances.
"Unfinished business shows that Koori women often lack the social support afforded to the general population, while being at higher risk of family violence, mental or cognitive impairments, homelessness and poverty. All of these factors drive contact with the criminal justice system.
"The increasing rate of Koori women entering prison comes at an enormous social and economic cost: to the women involved, to their children, to their communities and to the Victorian public.
"It has been very well understood for some time that Koori women face unique challenges in the justice system but despite this, there has not been sufficient focus on prevention and diversion for this group when compared to men," Mr Humphreys said.
"With this report, the Commission is calling for a new approach to keeping Koori women out of prison, and one that recognises that imposing programs designed for men and for non-Koori women on Koori women are missing the mark," Mr Humphreys said.
"This research also looks at the ongoing impact of a mother's imprisonment on her children, family and community, which has largely been absent from the policy discussion," Mr Humphreys said.
"The time is now right to fix a system that is broken by investing in gender and culturally appropriate diversionary services for Koori women," Mr Humphreys said.