JIM COOMBS. “Circle” Incarceration

Jul 30, 2016


After the revelations this week, it is trite to say that the criminal justice system is failing the Aboriginal people of Australia. One significant reason for this is the exclusion of the Aboriginal community from the process. One “reform” in the process over the last decade or so is “circle sentencing” which allows a small panel of community elders to assist magistrates in the process of sentencing, after the offender has pleaded guilty.

Given that the incarceration of Aboriginals is 23 times the rate for white offenders (compared with 5-7 times for African-Americans in the USA), it is clear that we have failed quite badly.

What is needed is some means of reducing the number presenting to the courts, and, where convictions do occur, a system of incarceration which does not send the offender into the present escalator of further convictions and institutionalisation.

If the concept of Circle Sentencing was put forward to the charging process, that is, a panel of community elders were to sit with the charging sergeant when people were collected off the streets typically on a Friday or Saturday night, there is at least some hope that a higher proportion would be discharged. There is anecdotal evidence from a town in western NSW of this happening, with a reduction in the charge rate.

The failure of the correctional system in respect to our First People suggests that a similar approach could be taken. There is a “correctional” institution for youthful offenders in northern NSW (Balunda, near Tabulam) controlled and manned by Aboriginal staff which teaches rural skills, in combination with some TAFE type education, but particularly immersion in the culture of the Aboriginal people. It is also reputed to have a low recidivism rate.

It should also be said that the present system is truly expensive, a figure of $110,000 per inmate per year is often quoted in NSW, and it would be as much in other states.

So the question is: Why can’t there be correctional institutions managed by Aboriginals for Aboriginals with a culturally appropriate approach to rehabilitation?

Jim Coombs, Acting/Retired Magistrate, barrister for 17 years, magistrate 12 years.



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