COVID-19 has caused widespread uncertainty and people are rightly looking to our public institutions for consistency and confidence. Our criminal justice system is under scrutiny as we interrogate the ways it often lets down the most vulnerable, including our First Nations people. The Black Lives Matter movement calls out the unforgivable racism in our criminal justice system—racism that cannot be denied and that demands urgent action. I acknowledge the important work of local Indigenous organisations in the inner west, including AbSec, Innari Housing Inc., Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-Operative and the Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women's Legal Centre. I am, of course, proud to represent communities on the land of the Gadigal and Wangal peoples of the Eora Nation and I acknowledge their rich cultural heritage and ongoing ownership of land. I also acknowledge the critical work of the Marrickville Legal Centre, the Redfern Legal Centre and the Aboriginal Legal Service. They are there to assist the vulnerable people who are entangled in the criminal justice system but also to speak truth to power when the system proves to be broken.
The facts do not lie when it comes to racism in our criminal justice system. Indigenous people in New South Wales are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous people. In the past 10 years, the number of Indigenous people charged by New South Wales police has increased by 67 per cent. This compares with only 8 per cent for non-Indigenous people. Shamefully, across Australia more than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since 1991. Gomeroi scholar Alison Whittaker conducted a study, revealing that only five of 134 Indigenous deaths in custody were referred by coroners to prosecutors. Only two were heard in court. Both cases ended in acquittal. She points the finger squarely at the racist silence of non-Indigenous people which perpetuates the system, which he Black Lives Matter movement calls on each of us to confront.
That truth telling should include concrete action, including adopting all the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It should include properly funding the Aboriginal Legal Service. It should include escalating diversion programs for Indigenous offenders—particularly when it comes to drug and alcohol offences. The Walama Court, a culturally specific court within the NSW District Court designed to divert First Nations adult offenders away from the criminal justice system, should be immediately established. It should include committing to the principles of justice reinvestment whereby we transfer funding from corrections to health, education and community initiatives that are proven to reduce crime. It should start in schools, with better targeted support and intervention to keep Indigenous kids in the education system. In 2018 almost one-quarter of the 32,343 kids given short suspensions in New South Wales schools were Indigenous. That is despite them making up only a fraction of the total school population.
The truth telling must involve raising the age of criminal responsibility. The Raise The Age campaign calls on governments across Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14. Last year alone, almost 600 children aged 10 to 13 were imprisoned in Australia. Disgracefully, two-thirds of them were Indigenous. The Attorney General recently reported that 200 young people are housed in youth justice centres in New South Wales. Three of them are as young as 13. Cheryl Axleby, the co-chair of Change the Record, said:
Children who come in contact with the criminal legal system are more likely to die an early death, to reoffend and to stay in the criminal legal system—including as adults. It's a quicksand that traps these kids and their families for the rest of their lives.
Dr Mick Creati of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians explained that the current age of criminal responsibility goes against medical advice. He said:
The latest neuroscience shows the human brain doesn't fully develop until you're about 25, and the last bits to develop are the bits which control impulse control and seeing the long-term consequences for your actions. Criminalisation is not an effective solution.
Last week the Council of Attorneys-General and the New South Wales Government deferred any decision on lowering the criminal age of responsibility until 2021. Frankly, they have got it wrong. This is urgent. We need to act now to protect vulnerable children, particularly Indigenous children. The deferral means that hundreds more will end up in the criminal justice system, with lifelong consequences. That delay fails us all. COVID-19 has been complex and daunting, but it requires us to strengthen the public services that we rely on if we are to protect the most marginalised and vulnerable in our community. I support the Black Lives Matter movement. I stand with those fighting to restore fairness and justice to policing and our criminal justice system in New South Wales and across the globe.