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The Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALSWA) slammed proposed cuts by a Coalition Government. ALSWA was also outraged by the very late announcement of these likely cuts, two days out from the election.

ALSWA’s acting CEO, John Bedford described the cuts as a “heartless decision.” Aboriginal legal services are financially strained, underfunded and not able to assist everyone that they would like to. It makes no sense that ALSWA funding would be reduced with the imprisonment rates of Aboriginal adults fifteen times that of non-Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal peoples endure disproportionately high rates of incarceration, various injustices, homelessness and impoverishment.

In an announcement made late in their campaign, the Coalition revealed that cuts worth $42 million will be made under the “Further Coalition Savings” as part of “re-prioritising” the “Indigenous Policy Reform Program”, and that it plans to cut funding to Aboriginal legal aid and services around the country by 20 per cent if elected.

ALSWA, like other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, is funded exclusively through the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department.

Mr Bedford said that the cuts would have a disastrous effect on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged within our community.

“This is a heartless decision. It will force ALSWA to make cuts to its services, and in particular, ALSWA’s capacity to advise and represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people facing criminal charges will be severely affected. This will inevitably result in more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being unrepresented in court and increasing the numbers in this State’s already over-populated prisons,” said Mr Bedford.

There are now 14 adult prisons in Western Australia, the 14th opened last year, with prisons overcrowded. The prison population is at record-levels, in excess of 5,300 and with Aboriginal prisoners 43 per cent of the total prison population despite Aboriginal peoples in WA comprising only 2.6 per cent of the total State population.

Mr Bedford said that this decision comes at a time when the WA State Government has finally acknowledged the need to reduce the numbers of Aboriginal people, especially children, in custody. Juvenile detainment in WA is the highest in the nation, with 70 per cent of the children detained being Aboriginal. And half of all the children in the custody of the State are Aboriginal children, more than 2,000. Research by myself last year argued that one in 12 Aboriginal children in Western Australia is in the care of the State, in one form or another.

“These cuts will have the opposite effect and will also place enormous pressure on an already stretched justice system, which begs the question; if ALSWA can’t help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who will?”

This de-prioritisation of optimum funding levels for ALSWA follows the scandalous de-funding of the Custodial Notification Service (CNS) to ALSWA NSW/ACT – an alert service to ALSWA of Aboriginal peoples who were arrested. Since its inception the CNS had reduced Aboriginal deaths in police custody (watch houses) to zero. ALSWA funded it for a year on its own after both State and Federal Governments refused to fund it. But after a huge campaign by ALSWA, and a petition of 40,000 signatures, the funding was reinstated mid-year. However it appears bleak times ahead for the ALSWA with the latest round of proposed funding cuts.