Stories of trauma, injustice and inequality intersected with stories of culture, connection and hope at this year’s National Indigenous Justice Forum.

Held across two days at Perth’s Pan Pacific Hotel this week and coordinated by Akolade, speakers and delegates participating in the justice sector gathered for discussions around the theme ‘Putting an end to Indigenous injustice.’

A keynote presentation from Cheryl Axleby, CEO at Aboriginal Land Rights Movement and Co-Chair of both Change the Record and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), saw an overview of Australia’s colonial history and how that legacy has been carried through to today’s justice system.

Ms Axleby said Australia’s First Nations Peoples are the most incarcerated population in the world, and that nine out of ten Aboriginal men born in the 1970s have been arrested.

“This is not something we can solve with minor, discrete policy changes,” Ms Axleby said in her keynote.

“The mass incarceration crisis is an enduring colonial legacy.”

The accomplished Narungga woman highlighted statistic after statistic demonstrating the inequities ever-present in Australia’s justice system – including that the rate of children being removed from their homes is higher now than it was during the Stolen Generations.

Ms Axleby called for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take a seat at the table where decision-making happens.

“The days of setting policy for us, without us, is over.”


Children in detention

Indigenous Rights Manager at Amnesty International Australia and proud Nyikina woman, Tammy Solonec, then delivered an impassioned speech about the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the criminal justice system.

“In every jurisdiction of Australia, our children are overrepresented,” Ms Solonec said.

The Indigenous Rights Manager also highlighted the underlying legacy of colonisation and that the justice system currently punishes the disadvantaged instead of helping them.

Amnesty International Australia is also currently campaigning for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 14 and to decrease the number of children on remand without bail.

According to Ms Solonec, Australia-wide there are more children on remand than children who are sentenced – resulting in innocent children serving time.

Ms Solonec delivered a call to action for the conference participants, encouraging everyone to share resources, garner public support, work to break down complex issues and deliver smart justice approaches.


Sharing lived experience

Former community members and Indigenous allies also shared their experiences with the justice system, demonstrating the resilience of Australia’s First Nations Peoples.

“It’s about standing together to break the system that is broken,” said Jessica Peters, a community member who had been in and out of prison in the past.

“People with lived experience need to lead the change.”

A panel discussion showed how poverty and homelessness among Indigenous Australians can often lead to contact with the justice system.

Naomi Murphy, Aboriginal Ex-Offender Employment Project Worker at Woor-Dungin’s Criminal Record Discrimination Project, spoke about how inadequate housing and homelessness leads to a preference for prison, continuing the cycle of recidivism.

Gerry Georgatos, National Coordinator at the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, discussed the relationship between suicidality and poverty.

“In terms of housing, poverty and homelessness – it’s all intertwined.”

Mr Georgatos said changing the narrative was possible, but it would be a long-haul approach.


A siloed system of support

Another key factor causing inequity in the justice system identified at the forum was the disconnect between departments and services.

Sophie Stewart, Campaign Coordinator at Social Reinvestment WA, discussed the intersectional issues that were causing Indigenous people to fall through the gaps in multiple sectors.

Ms Stewart told the story of a young boy in a remote community who had a hearing impairment who couldn’t hear at school, fell behind in class, dropped out and wasn’t able to get a job in his community.

The boy fell into crime and ended up in the youth justice system.

“Imagine if we had just given [him] hearing aids,” Ms Stewart said.

It’s slipping through the gaps in one sector that demonstrates the siloed effect of Australia’s systems.

Social Reinvestment WA has guided communities across the state in creating programs to address community issues and tell community stories.

One such program is Stories from the Inside, a podcast, video and book series created by community that showcases young people’s stories in detention told by the young people themselves.


Elders of the future

A presentation from Koorie Youth Council showed young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the strength and the key to creating sustainable change for the future of the justice system.

Indi Clarke, Executive Officer at Koorie Youth Council, handed conference participants copies of the Council’s Ngaga-dji report.

Meaning ‘hear me’ in the Woiwurrung language of the Wurundjeri people, the Ngaga-dji report tells composite stories representative of young peoples’ experiences with the justice system and outlines solutions for the future.

“For us at KYC we know we very much stand on the shoulders of giants,” Mr Clarke said.

The Executive Officer outlined the Council’s work in walking with Indigenous children as they participate in finding solutions to enhance systems, services and young people’s connection to culture.

With beautiful illustrations from Jacob Komesaroff – who received high praise from Mr Clarke for being considerate and culturally aware when depicting young Indigenous people – Ngaga-dji is bursting with hope for a new life for Indigenous justice.

“We have to embed Aboriginal knowledge systems,” Mr Clarke said.

Like all speakers from the Forum’s first day, Mr Clarke spoke with a passion that demonstrates true personal investment in the advancement of Indigenous Australians.

The National Indigenous Justice Forum 2019 acted as a call to action for Australia to stand up, take notice and listen to First Nations Peoples.

By Hannah Cross