A new report released earlier this week has found Indigenous Australians are now more likely to be incarcerated than African Americans.

Federal Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh released a paper which found incarcerations in Australia had reached levels unseen since colonial times.

Some of the key findings of Dr Leigh’s report include:

  • Indigenous incarceration rates over the past three decades have more than doubled
  • The age-adjusted Indigenous incarceration rate in 2018 was 13 times the non-Indigenous incarceration rate
  • In 2007 the incarceration rate of African Americans was 75 percent higher than the Indigenous incarceration rate. In 2017, the Indigenous incarceration rate exceeded the African American incarceration rate for the first time
  • The rate of Indigenous Australian adults being incarcerated is at 2.5 percent, which is higher than the rate of African American adults being imprisoned
  • Indigenous incarceration rates are higher than those of Indigenous people in Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

Dr Leigh said the dramatic rise of Indigenous incarcerations from 1.1 percent in 1990 to 2.5 percent in 2018 was particularly concerning.

“We have got to the extraordinary point where Indigenous Australians are more likely to be incarcerated than African Americans,” Dr Leigh said.

“The fact that 2.5 percent of Indigenous adults are incarcerated and 4.3 percent of Western Australian Indigenous adults are incarcerated, that’s just shocking.”

Dr Leigh said contributing to these high rates was police being more likely to press charges and the increased likelihood of courts handing down custodial sentences that were longer.

“While they are awaiting trial, people are more likely to be behind bars than out on bail,” Dr Leigh said.

“The overall incarcerations rate is now the highest it’s been since 1899.”

Indigenous leader Noel Pearson said “Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated people on the planet” on ABC’s Q&A back in 2017.

After reading the report this week, Mr Pearson expressed his gratitude to Dr Leigh.

Mr Pearson said the increasing rate of Indigenous incarceration was one of the most pressing policy problems facing our nation.

“We have to get real about tackling intergenerational welfare dependency, and what this does to communities, families and children. We need far more effective approaches to tackle cycles of family violence, child abuse and neglect,” Mr Pearson said.

“Australia has a very poor track record in assisting people to break such cycles.”

Mr Pearson said he hoped Dr Leigh’s report would encourage the Labor Party to focus on incarceration issues.

“The Labor Party talks a lot about inequality, but we need to deal with the country’s inability to deal with entrenched disadvantage that often makes jail a respite from the difficult lives too many of our people lead outside of prison,” Mr Pearson said.

“Australia is a wealthy country and we have had inquiries, reports upon reports and Royal Commissions. Yet things just keep getting worse. Everything has failed to fix things, and in fact probably made things worse.”

Dr Leigh acknowledged that while positive steps were being taken to improve high rates of Indigenous incarcerations, more could still be done.

“There is good work being done looking at traditional justice circles and looking at ways of bringing victim and offender face to face. And the use of drug courts and Koori courts has been useful,” Dr Leigh said.

“But it all has been happening in an environment where the Indigenous incarceration rate just rises year after year.”

By Jade Bradford