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?
Frustrated at the continuing Aboriginal deaths in custody, angry that the subject wasn't in the news headlines despite the appalling rates of imprisonment of Aboriginal people, and disappointed by the scholarly debate, Weatherburn wrote Arresting incarceration.
Weatherburn notes that people had started out with this narrative about injustice. However, it's one of those cases where premises of the argument are true but the conclusion is wrong. Yes, there had been injustice but that’s not the reason why we have Aboriginal over-representation in prisons, not in the main. He makes the point that violence in rife in some Aboriginal communities and the principal victims are Aboriginal people themselves.
Weatherburn wants the focus to be on the key indicators of alcohol and drug-reduction strategies, better education, more jobs and an emphasis on the mothers who are rearing the next generation.
Don Weatherburn is the Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. He was awarded a Public Service Medal in January 1998 and made a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 2006. Dr Weatherburn is the author of two books and more than 180 articles, book chapters and reports on crime and criminal justice.
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