Prison, police and youth justice overhaul on cards after landmark Indigenous report

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Standalone criminal justice and child protection systems for Aboriginal Victorians, a ban on the detention of children under 16 and an independent police oversight body are among the sweeping changes proposed in the Yoorrook Justice Commission’s latest report.

The 46 recommendations in the report released on Monday morning call for substantial and transformative measures to be taken through the statewide Treaty process to shift greater decision-making power, control and resources into the hands of First Peoples and enable full self-determination in the criminal justice and child protection networks.

Yoorrook commissioners Professor Kevin Bell, Professor Sue-Anne Hunter, Professor Eleanor Bourke, Travis Lovett and Professor Maggie Walter.

It also sets a tight timeframe for the state government of just one year to implement urgent recommendations, warning consultations and lack of resources must not be used as an “excuse for delay”.

Interim agreements formed as part of preliminary negotiations within the statewide treaty process, which is due to commence before the end of this year, could see many of the most urgent changes achieved even sooner, the report says.

Commission chair Professor Eleanor Bourke AM said systemic reform and self-determination were needed to recognise and secure First People’s human and cultural rights, and urged Premier Daniel Andrews to fast-track the implementation of all the recommendations contained in the report.

“Small steps are not enough … the foundations for change have been laid in Victoria through truth and treaty. Now is the time for action,” Bourke said.

Yoorrook Justice Commission chair Eleanor Bourke.Credit: Joe Armao

The rate of First Nations children in out-of-home care in Victoria is the worst in the country, according to the Productivity Commission’s 2023 report into government services. Between 2013 and 2022, the number of First Nations children in out-of-home care increased from 922 to 2595.

Aboriginal men, women and children accused of a crime are more likely to be charged and less likely to be given a caution or warning than non-Indigenous Victorians, according to 2022 data released by the Crime Statistics Agency, leading to Aboriginal men and women in the state being more than 13 times more likely to be incarcerated.

There have been 34 Aboriginal deaths in custody in Victoria since the landmark royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody tabled its final report in 1991.

Other key recommendations include mandatory selection criteria, and performance reviews for the Victoria Police Chief Commissioner to recognise ongoing systemic racism in the force, understand the history of colonisation and commit to change.

It would also see new or increased powers for positions made for a Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, and an Aboriginal Inspector of Adult Custodial Services to help with structural reform of the prison system.

Strip searches and prolonged lockdowns in prisons would also be banned, while police, lawyers and the judiciary would be culturally trained and encouraged to hand out more cautions and diversions to First Peoples to keep them out of the criminal justice system and focus on rehabilitation.

The truth and justice commission is the first formal truth-telling process of its kind in Australia. It possesses the full powers of a royal commission, including the power to compel evidence and can refer information about suspected or alleged crimes to relevant law enforcement authorities.

After taking 33 submissions, hearing from 84 witnesses, conducting 12 roundtables and reviewing more than 4000 documents, the commission notes that the child protection and criminal justice system have long been areas of systemic injustice that involved “gross human and cultural rights violations”.

Frank admissions from a succession of ministers and senior bureaucrats were provided to the commission at hearings in December and May that acknowledged government departments, including Child and Family Services, Corrections, and Victoria Police were systemically racist and discriminatory towards Aboriginal people within the state.

The commission also heard calls from witnesses for greater First Nations authority and decision-making to underpin all reforms to both systems.

“First Peoples leaders, organisations and lived experience witnesses are united in their call for self-determination,” the report says. “For the child protection and criminal justice system, this means a fully realised transfer of power to Victorian First Peoples and, while this is being implemented urgent immediate measures.”

“It is not merely about consultation or transfer of service delivery responsibilities. It is not about transferring broken systems.

“Some of Yoorrook’s legislative recommendations will benefit all Victorians in addition to addressing the significant injustices that First Peoples continue to experience.

“First Peoples cannot wait for these injustices to be addressed.”

Delivering the report, Yoorrook deputy chair Sue Anne Hunter said the child protection system was a source of injustice and trauma, describing it as “a pipeline into the criminal justice system”.

Sixty-four per cent of young Aboriginal people under supervision within the Victorian youth justice have also had child protection involvement, according to the report.

Hunter said both systems remained broken for Aboriginal people despite numerous inquiries and political promises, and echoed the commission chair, Bourke, in exhorting the premier to act on the findings.

“On the opening day of Yoorrook’s hearings last December, Premier (Daniel) Andrews said his government would ‘waste no time’ in delivering on Yoorrook’s recommendations. I urge the Premier to live up to these words, because our people cannot wait any longer,” Hunter said.

Commissioner Travis Lovett, a Kerrupmara Gunditjmara man, said First Peoples have repeatedly told the commission they want “genuine self-determination”.

“This is not just consulting with or listening to Aboriginal people. Self-determination means First Peoples setting the agenda on the issues that affect us. It means handing over power and control so that we can design, establish and run the systems and services to support our families and communities to thrive,” Lovett said.

“The Victorian government and the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria have created the opportunity to achieve this through the treaty process.”

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