Thanks in large part to the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement, Victoria’s Aboriginal imprisonment rate remains lower than the national average. But, warns Professor Chris Cunneen, tougher penalties are having a disproportionate effect on Aboriginal Victorians and pushing up rates.
I am not sure that Victorians would enjoy being compared with the Northern Territory in terms of prison policy backwardness. However they certainly have one thing in common: a dramatic race to the bottom in locking up more and more Aboriginal people. Between 2008 and 2012 Aboriginal imprisonment rates rose by 34 per cent in the Northern Territory; in Victoria the rise was 43 per cent, with much of that occurring recently. In 2011-12 alone, the Victorian Aboriginal imprisonment rate rose by 26 per cent.1 In the Northern Territory, they can blame the ‘Intervention’2 for these changes, but what is causing this dramatic shift in punitiveness in Victoria?
These changes represent a turn of events. Victoria had traditionally experienced relatively low rates of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal imprisonment; for decades they were half that of New South Wales. There are multiple layers to this story of change, and I want to try and unpack some of the salient features. Like most explanations, it will be partial and open to differing interpretations and emphasis. In the final section I want to shift the discussion away from imprisonment and towards some of the positive aspects of the relationship between Aboriginal people and the justice system, particularly through the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement.