Speech by Mr Philip Brown

Central Australian launch of the NT Aboriginal Justice Agreement

Alice Springs Convention Centre, 18 October 2021

Good afternoon, I also wish to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land where we meet today, the Arrenrte People, Elders past, present and future.

I also wish to acknowledge the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice the Hon Selena Uibo, the Hon Eva Lawler, the Hon Lauren Moss, the Hon Chansey Paech, the CEO of the Department of the Attorney-General and Justice Gemma Lake, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I’d like to acknowledge Leanne Liddle, Warren Jackson and their team in the Aboriginal Justice Unit. If it wasn’t for all your hard work and determination, the Agreement wouldn’t be in the position it is today.

In December 2017, I had the privilege of travelling with Aboriginal Justice Unit team to Wadeye for a community consultation and the connection the team had with the community during the consultation was rewarding.

The community conversations were quite open, frank and meaningful. I was quite clear the community wanted to see change.

This agreement is a turning point in how the NT Government works alongside and together with Aboriginal organisations’ and Aboriginal Territorians will work together to improve justice outcomes and the lives of Aboriginal people in the Territory.

Voices are now being heard and this agreement is a commitment by the NT Government to ensure that Aboriginal Territorians that come into contact with the justice system whether as victims, offenders, witnesses or families will be treated fairly, respectfully and without discrimination.

The NT has the highest rate of imprisonment in the nation.

It is no surprise that Aboriginal people have consistently made up the largest proportion of prisoners in the NT.

In 1985, I joined NT Correctional Services as a young Prison Officer based at Darwin Prison it was known in those days.

The prisoner numbers in the centre averaged around 110-130 and were around 85% Aboriginal and this was before the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Today there are approx. 1100 prisoners held in Darwin Correctional Centre alone.

In 2007, as Superintendent of Alice Springs Correctional Centre there were very little numbers of women in our care.

I recall a pregnant Aboriginal woman come into our care and gave birth and the female numbers just kept on increasing.

This is the fastest growing cohort in the Northern Territory prison system.

I have had some highs in my career in NT Corrections, but I’ve also experienced some lows.

One of the lows that still sticks to me today, was when I walked into Don Dale and saw a young 10-year-old Aboriginal boy in a cell on his own for his own safety, due to the older age of the other detainees.

At first sight I thought to myself, I was a young boy once, I grew up around my brothers and other Aboriginal boys like him, I have nephews the same age this boy.

I asked why isn’t he at home with his family, at school, kicking the footy, or riding his push bike with other kids around the neighbourhood?

I still get quite emotional about this, seeing that 10-year-old Aboriginal boy in the cell on his own.

I ask the question: what sort of society are we living in with more Aboriginal females coming into custody, and children as young as 10 coming into custody?

And nothing appears to be changing. As of 30 June 2018, 85% of adult prisoners in the NT were Aboriginal, despite Aboriginal adults accounting for 25.9% of the NT’s adult population.

This is the largest proportion of Aboriginal prisoners in any state or territory.

By looking at the facts, it’s clear how big the divides are and that change is not only necessary but essential.

For domestic violence, almost nine in ten (89%) victims of domestic and family violence related assaults in the NT are Aboriginal.

It’s clear that domestic and family violence is a key driver of Aboriginal incarceration and affect Aboriginal people at disproportionate rates having devastating effects on everyone involved.

The most recent NT crime statistics, indicate that alcohol is involved in at least 60% of domestic and family violence offences and 60% of all assaults in the NT which indicate the need for reform and education.

Furthermore Aboriginal people experience disproportionately high rates of poor mental health and wellbeing, including intergenerational trauma, grief and loss.

In 2014-2015, Aboriginal Territorians were hospitalised for a mental or behavioural disorder at three times the rate of non-Aboriginal Territorians

Suicide rates in the NT for children aged 5-17 are over three times higher than in any other jurisdiction which paints such a dark picture for young communities.

In terms of children, by the age of 10, 50% of children had been the subject a child protection notification or report.

In 2016, 75% of Aboriginal children who were found guilty of an offence in the NT had previously been reported to child protection.

The data, research and experiences of Aboriginal people demonstrates that Aboriginal people fare worse than non-Aboriginal people at every stage of the justice process.

The knowledge of help is not there, as 78.6% of Aboriginal people who identified discrimination as an issue did not seek legal advice or help.

All these issues and statistics lead to having knock on effect which brings about huge economic costs to the Justice system, estimated at $3.9 billion for Aboriginal incarceration alone.

The current situation is grim.

But there is hope.

With the Aboriginal Justice Agreement over the course of seven years will bring about a genuine partnership to help meet the needs of Aboriginal Territorians and bring about a better life and outcomes for all.

Again in my 28 years in NT Corrections, I’ve seen the fathers come into custody, then after a few years I started seeing the sons come into custody, sometimes whilst their fathers were in there and sometimes whilst their fathers were not in custody.

Later on when I haven’t seen their fathers for a while, I’d asked the sons where their father are, I haven’t seen them back in custody or around Darwin, they would tell me that their fathers are home back in the community sick, he can’t go anywhere.

How tragic is this, when the fathers spend most of their younger lives going in and out of the prison system, then when they age, they are back in their community with a medical condition, they can’t travel.

If I was in NT Corrections for another five years I would be seeing the grandsons come into custody. I strongly believe the Aboriginal Justice Agreement will go a long way in preventing Intergenerational incarceration

I would like to thank the NT Government for investing $4.5 million into the Agreement for the 2021-2022 financial year.

I would also like to thank the Paul Ramsay Foundation for their support and contribution of $2 million to see that the Agreement implements real change.

Progress is already being made. Within Central Australia, the first new Law and Justice Groups is starting up in Kintore and Haasts Bluff.

These communities have been closely engaged with the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and will benefit from this new approach with greater support for local leadership and local decision making in justice issues

I just want to leave you on a final note on one of my experiences working with Aboriginal prisoners in custody.  Aboriginal people live in two worlds.

One being a spiritual world that is not highly acknowledged or understanding by non-Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal people can be subjected to spiritual punishment as well for an offence committed in their own community.

They can be subject to spiritual punishment while in custody.

I had a high official visit Alice Springs Correctional Centre one day and that person asked how things were that day and I told that person that we just had a cultural ceremony performed to break the spiritual punishment.

And in brief the response I received was: “Superstitious lot aren’t they?”

Now is this a lack of understanding Aboriginal people culture, plain ignorance or unconscious bias?

Clearly we still have a lot to learn.

Thank you

Last updated: 01 November 2021

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