After 10 years the Close the Gap report tells us that most of the gaps are not closing. Life expectancy, school attendance, literacy, and employment are still reflecting First Nations disadvantage. The entire campaign is said to be in need of “refreshing”.

In fact, the reason for the failure of the Close the Gap campaign is hiding in plain sight. Indigenous incarceration rates have continued to rise, and there has never been a “Close the Prison Gap” campaign. The then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, pleaded for a justice target in 2013, and the Australian Medical Association made the same call in 2015, but both were simply ignored. Incarceration perpetuates disadvantage, for individuals and for communities.

We know where the disadvantage began. Aboriginal people were dispossessed and then incarcerated for their own protection in native reserves. They were employed on cattle and sheep stations without wages and excluded from participation in White Australia until 1975. This left many, if not most, Aboriginal people living in poverty, without sufficient education to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Torres Strait Islanders were not all dispossessed, and their incarceration rates are lower.

Just as African Americans went from slavery to racial discrimination under “Jim Crow” laws, which resulted in poverty and high rates of imprisonment, so in Australia, Aboriginal people experienced violence, racial discrimination, and poverty. The economic legacy of racial discrimination is intergenerational, as wealth and privilege is handed down through families, and poverty is associated with higher crime rates.

Today there are laws against racial discrimination in Australia but systemic racism continues. Aboriginal children are removed from their families at much higher rates than non-Aboriginal children. If this is a reflection of poverty, psychosocial disabilities, and substance abuse, supporting families would be a better way of dealing with the problem. Children in out-of-home care want to go home, they act out and run away, the foster placements break down, and the child becomes homeless.  Aboriginal children are also suspended from school at much higher rates than non-Aboriginal children, three times the rate, to be precise. If this is due to neurodevelopmental disabilities or trauma responses, the children and their families need medical and psychological assistance, not ineffective punishments. Is there also some degree of prejudice? An expectation that Aboriginal children are different, incorrigible, not suited to Western classrooms? Or is it financial disadvantage? A paediatrician may charge $500 for an initial consultation and the Medicare rebate is less than $200. How is that accessible?

The reality is that too many Aboriginal children are growing up homeless and excluded from school. This makes them vulnerable to the influence and suggestions of older children and adults on the street, and targets of police searches and arrests. At 10 years old they can be incarcerated in youth detention centres where sexual abuse and assault are always a possibility. Detention centres are prisons by another name, and children locked in concrete cells are likely to develop a posttraumatic stress disorder, or to have preexisting anxiety disorders greatly exacerbated. Ninety per cent of the children under 12 years old in custody in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Intergenerational trauma has been suggested as the cause of the ongoing disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal communities. This is a reality when the experience of incarceration is handed down, generation after generation. Professor Todd Clear, in his 2007 book “Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration makes Disadvantaged Neighbourhoods Worse”, describes the effects of incarceration on health and wealth, and how absent parents, unemployment, and poverty affect the children of prisoners. These children are then 6 times more likely to go to prison than their peers.

We could make sweeping changes to the criminal justice system in Australia by raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 15 years. We know that the younger a child is exposed to arrest, the courts, and custody, the more likely they are to continue to offend. The change would force us to spend money on medical, psychological and social services to prevent offending behaviour, instead of spending $1400 a day* to incarcerate a child. Then perhaps the incarceration rates would begin to drop and the gaps would begin to close. If nothing changes, nothing changes.


  • Dr Meg Perkins is the principal psychologist at Tweed Coast Psychology and Educational Programs and an Adjunct Research Fellow Griffith Criminology Institute. Meg is also the convener of the National Conference on Indigenous Conference – the second such conference is to be held in Tweeds Heads NSW, June 28, 29, 30 2018.