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Youth crime in Western Australia is on the rise with juvenile detention on the rise but it is Aboriginal youth finishing up in detention and onwards to the adult prison system. To combat the rise in juvenile detention, State Corrective Services Minister Joe Francis has set up a Youth Justice Board with the objective to steer as much of the offending youth into rehabilitative and diversionary programs. But this has been tried again and again, so will it work this time?

Restorative justice academic from Curtin University’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Dr Brian Steels said that there are other more productive ways and which will succeed. Dr Steels wants us to step out of the archaic penal estate mindset and work in “therapeutic ways.”

First Peoples comprise less than 3 per cent of the Western Australian population but they make up more than 40 per cent of the adult prison population. For the first time, Aboriginal youth make up more than 80 per cent of the State’s juvenile detention population – 81.7 per cent. Only the Northern Territory has a shockingly higher rate – 98 per cent.

Dr Steels said the nation’s Aboriginal youth are 48 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal youth. But all the State can come up with is the Youth Justice, to be chaired by James McMahon, who is the new Commissioner of Corrective Services.

“It is nothing new,” said Dr Steels.

He said it is a rebadged panel following previous Government initiatives such as the Aboriginal Justice Agreement, the Office of Crime Prevention and the Juvenile Justice Teams.

Dr Steels said the panel is doomed to fail despite its noble objectives but because it is underwritten by a nevertheless “tough approach” to offending.

“Trials involving Aboriginal Elders passing judgment on offenders have had positive effect,” said Dr Steels. Dr Steels also promotes therapeutic jurisprudence where offenders’ mitigating circumstances such as substance abuse are instead addressed. “Therapy instead of punishment,” said Dr Steels.

This type of therapeutic and restorative justice has worked in Norway and other Scandinavian countries, where reoffending rates are the lowest in Europe – 16 per cent as compared to 60 per cent for the rest of Europe.

There are more than 300 First Nations people in Western Australian prisons on minor driving convictions, most of them for unpaid fines. In a recent article I wrote that 65 per cent of First Peoples in Australian prisons could be released today without them posing any risk to society, they are all very minor offenders. In my experience, as a restorative justice advocate myself and a custodial systems PhD researcher, and as someone who has visited prisons, it is my witness that people come out of prison worse than they went in. Not only can 65 per cent of the First Peoples prison population be released but so can 45 per cent of the rest of prison population. The Australian prison population has doubled in the last twenty years, with the brunt borne disproportionately by First Peoples, who from a racialised perspective are incarcerated among the world’s highest rates. In the Northern Territory, 83 per cent of the prison population is of First Peoples, regionally this is the world’s highest proportion. In Western Australia, proportionately to the total State population, First Peoples adult males are incarcerated at the world’s highest rate.

Dr Steels said that the imperative is to put people first, to understand their circumstance and to work alongside them rather than bundle minor offenders or troubled individuals into the penal estate. Dr Steels detailed an analogy – referring to the State’s former Treasurer, the trouble prone Troy Buswell. Recently, Mr Buswell while inebriated pranged a number of cars. A First Peoples in the same predicament would have been bundled into gaol. Mr Buswell was provided every support.

“So now we know, if any of us commits a crime, or a series of crimes, such as drink driving, failing to report several accidents, failing to stop at the scene of an accident then the best thing to do is run away just like Mr Troy Buswell, the Treasurer of Western Australia,” said Mr Steels.

Mr Steels said Mr Buswell’s advocates said he had a “mental breakdown” and was therefore entitled to “get more support than the numerous people whose cars he drove into.” Mr Steels said that this kind of love should be spread to First Peoples.

“To put it into context, a young Aboriginal offender can be jailed for so much less damage to one car.”

“Mr Buswell should now support restorative justice and therapeutic jurisprudence – processes that seek to be fair and just.”

Dr Steels said that the Premier of Western Australia, and the Cabinet, who have supported Mr Buswell throughout his troubled career and numerous mishaps which would have seen others prosecuted on nearly every occasion, need now to apply the support they gave Mr Buswell to all minor offenders. At least one quarter of the prison population is people languishing with mental illness or various depression that needs to be addressed therapeutically.

“The Premier of this State, Colin Barnett needs to seek a balance across the community and provide similar justice for all,” said Dr Steels.