Aboriginal people make up 31% of the adult prison population in NSW

The number of Aboriginal adults and young people in New South Wales prisons is the highest on record, new figures released on Tuesday show.

In March, the number of Aboriginal adults in prison was “an all-time high”, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (Bocsar) said. 31% of the prison population are Aboriginal adults.

“To put that into perspective, in NSW, 3.2% of adults are Aboriginal, and one in 29 Aboriginal men in NSW are currently in prison,” Bocsar executive director Jackie Fitzgerald said.

“In particular, NSW is no longer on track to meet its Dunbarna target to reduce the rate of Aboriginal adults in prison.”

The NSW target was to reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in custody by at least 15% by 2031.

This increase is not isolated to adults either, she said.

Two thirds (66.4%) of the youth detention population are now made up of Aboriginal young people, which is a new record for NSW.

The vast majority of young Aboriginal people in detention are remanded (78.4%), mainly for break and enter (29.3%) and car theft (22.4%).

“This is a crisis we should all be furious about,” said Nadine Miles, chief legal officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT).

“The mass prosecution of Aboriginal people in NSW is a direct result of government policies developed without community input, which give the green light to continued discrimination against Aboriginal people in the legal system.”

NSW chief executive Chris Minns said the statistics represented a “major issue” facing the state.

“We want to work with Capo [the NSW Coalition of Aboriginal Peak Organisations] and other Indigenous peak organizations to reduce the incarceration rate,” Minns said.

“That means reducing the incidence of crime in our community.”

Asked if the state’s proposed new knifing laws would increase the number of Aboriginal people in custody, he said it was “hard to say” but hoped it would lead to a cultural change.

“In an ironic way … I hope the passing of the legislation will reduce the incidence of knife detection in the community because there is a cultural change,” he said.

But Miles said the NSW government wanted “tough on crime” measures that would not work.

“This includes the extraordinary ‘missing’ new laws that have done nothing to reduce violent crime in other places where they have been tried. Just weeks ago, despite having the highest number of Aboriginal children in custody, the government chose to pass dangerous bail laws among the harshest in the country. The chief executive himself has admitted that the laws will put more Aboriginal children in prison, so we can expect to see this shameful record climb even higher,” she said.

As for tougher bail laws related to the “posting and boasting” of youth crime on social media, Minns said while they were “not appropriate,” he considered a longer stint in the youth justice system better than catastrophic car crashes.

“I believed it was important to make the change because I was concerned that a young person would face a situation quite quickly where a young person would have to wrap a car around a tree and kill themselves or a family member,” he said.

“That’s a lot worse than, as bad as it is, being brought into the juvenile justice system.”

A spokesman for the attorney general, Michael Daley, said it was clear that “more needs to be done”.

“We are investing to reduce offending and re-offending, including through Justice Reinvestment initiatives to address the causes of crime and expanding the Koori youth court.”

But they said new legislation to tackle domestic violence, knife crime and youth crime was needed to “ensure our laws in NSW are able to protect all members of our community, including women and children”.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties said the new knife and bail proposals were “weak”.

“These laws are a weak sign, seen in the shock checks of the right wing, who continue to make policy on the record while misleading the public by telling them that it can end violent crime by passing these laws come in. That is simply not true,” said Lydia Shelly, President of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.

“Prisoner has allowed New South Wales to be transformed into a state where the police will have the extraordinary power to search members of the public without reason and prison populations will continue to balloon with the introduction of more anti-bail presumptions.”

Bocar found record numbers of adults remanded in NSW were largely due to a rise in recorded incidents and legal actions for domestic violence, sexual assault and intimidation and striking offences.

“Domestic violence and evictions are a big concern right now,” Fitzgerald said.

In March 2024, more than 3,000 adults were in custody for domestic violence offenses in NSW, more than at any previous time.

More than half of them had been replaced, Fitzgerald said.

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