A Stronger Future behind bars

BY AMY MCQUIREFEBRUARY 13, 2012

 Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin and Member for Lingiari and Minister for Indigenous Health, Warren Snowdon launching the Stronger Futures report earlier this year.

NATIONAL: The federal government’s plans to toughen alcohol bans in the Northern Territory could lead to higher Indigenous incarceration rates, writes AMY MCQUIRE.

Possession of one can of beer in a “prescribed” area could consign Aboriginal people to up to six months in prison under the Gillard government’s new Stronger Futures legislation.

The proposal, designed to crackdown on grog running in Aboriginal communities, has raised concerns about whether the controversial alcohol bans will only boost the numbers of Aboriginal people behind bars.

Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin introduced the controversial Stronger Futures legislation to the lower house in November last year. It has since been referred to a senate committee, with a reporting date of February 29th.

Stronger Futures is intended to replace the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), which expires in August this year. Under the new legislation, there will be tougher penalties on alcohol possession in prescribed areas.

Penalties for possession, consumption and supply of alcohol under 1.35 litres will rise to six months imprisonment, while the government claims it will work with local communities to develop Alcohol Management Plans (AMP).

Currently, people in possession of alcohol on prescribed areas could be given an on-the-spot fine of $133, with the fine for a first offence as high as $1330. If the person has more than 1.35 L of pure alcohol it could attract a fine of up to $90,440 or 18 months jail.

NT authorities will also be able to refer people who are deemed to have alcohol-related problems onto an income management scheme.

Paddy Gibson is a researcher for the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney, and has been a strong opponent of the intervention.

He says the harsh penalties will do little to solve problem drinking and only boost Aboriginal jailing rates.

“Prohibition hasn’t worked, and the immediate impact that any further criminalisation of alcohol use is going to have is on higher Indigenous incarceration rates,” Mr Gibson told Tracker.

“There has already been a 40 percent increase in Indigenous incarceration rates under the intervention, and that’s not for child sexual abuse, but rather for traffic offences, for driving unlicensed, because you have extra police out on Aboriginal land.

He says that the prospect of jail time will do little to deter drinking.

“If people are in a situation where they are abusing alcohol, it comes down to a lot of complex social factors that aren’t just going to stop straight away,” he said. “Aboriginal people already know getting pulled over by the cops can mean you end up in jail.

His concerns are echoed by the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA). It has expressed strong opposition to the proposed new penalties.

“The NT already has amongst the harshest penalties in Australia for bringing alcohol into remote Aboriginal communities. These include heavy fines, imprisonment and seizures of vehicles used in transporting alcohol,” NAAJA’s Advocacy Manager, Jared Sharp told Tracker.

“A punitive response has not worked and there is no evidence that an additionally punitive response is what is needed,” he added.

“… It is difficult to see the imperative of imposing jail sentences on people who are bringing small amounts of alcohol into a remote community.

“It is unlikely this will advance efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm in remote communities in any meaningful way.

“All it will do is send more Aboriginal people to jail for low-level public order offending, precisely the type of offending that the Royal Commission (Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody) raised as disproportionately impacting Aboriginal people.”

Mr Gibson also raised concerns over the Alcohol Management Plans (AMPs). He says Stronger Futures gives more power to the federal government and less to community.

“There are provisions for communities to negotiate and initiate alcohol management plans,” Mr Gibson said.

“But none of the provisions give any guarantee it’ll be the community that controls that process,” he added.

“This legislation will strengthen the discretion that the Minister can exercise over the process.

“Nothing in there mandates community decision making.”

Under Stronger Futures, Ms Macklin will be able to knock back AMPs if they do not fit with the government’s guidelines. Mr Sharp said NAAJA supported AMPs but stressed “the government must provide adequate resourcing for communities to take ownership of this process”.

“Communities must be provided access to independent and culturally appropriate experts who can assist them to prepare an AMP and who can allow them to participate on equal footing in this process with government consultants,” Mr Sharp said.

NAAJA was also concerned about the power of police to retain “an almost unfettered power to enter land, vehicles and search people where they have a reasonable suspicion that alcohol is there”.

“Aboriginal people have repeatedly told government they feel distressed that police have powers to enter their houses and search them without a warrant,” Mr Sharp said.

“Police search powers should be the same in all parts of the Northern Territory and must be urgently addressed as part of the Stronger Futures legislation which as drafted would continue to treat all ‘alcohol protected areas’ as General Restricted Areas,” he added.

Instead of criminalising alcohol abuse, there was a need for “culturally relevant alcohol counselling and rehabilitation services” for those in remote communities.

The NT intervention was launched under the Howard government in 2007, following a media driven panic over child sexual abuse.

It has continued, largely unchanged, under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. While the Gillard government claims it consulted widely with affected communities, there has been criticism the consultations only discussed pre-determined outcomes.

• A protest against continuing the intervention will be held on February 28th at Parliament House, Canberra. On February 27th there will be an outside screening of Our Generation.

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