What if the answer to reducing the Aboriginal incarceration rate was so small and simple that it seems almost too good to be true?
That was the thought I had as I met with then WA Chief Justice Wayne Martin as he told me what he thought would have a significant impact to helping ensure Aboriginal people didn’t end up in a pervasive cycle with the WA justice system.
So simple yet so significant in the way it would likely reduce the number of Indigenous people who end up caught by police, held by our courts and locked up in our jails resulting in the highest levels of Indigenous incarceration than anywhere else in the country.
Ensuring equitable access to drivers licences is delicate balance between making licences obtainable without sacrificing the need to get learner driver hours up and undertaking rigorous testing.
The complexity of this task is amplified the further away from the city you get as a combination of distance, prohibitive cost and culturally appropriate services and testing procedures mean that drivers’ licences are almost impossible to attain in remote or regional communities.
Add to these existing barriers the fact that Aboriginal people living in these communities need to travel outside where they live to access vital necessities like healthcare and don’t have access to a train, bus, or Uber.
It’s almost an inevitability that many will just get in a car and drive without a licence and in doing so commit a criminal act.
Once caught by police and then convicted by the courts, an often lifelong interaction with the justice system begins.
For those Aboriginal men sentenced to serve time, 70 per cent of them will reoffend again within two years of being released.
The offences grow in severity and spending time in prison becomes a normal way of life, if not a rite of passage.
Clearly the best way to stop this imprisonment crisis is at the very beginning.
Aside from legislative changes introduced by the WA government which remove serving prison time as a way to cut out traffic fines, Transport Minister Rita Saffioti has recently announced a program to address these issues at the root cause.
Called the Driving Access and Equity Program, the $10 million program increases access to licenced vehicles for learners, doubles driving instructors in the Mid-West, Pilbara and Kimberley, addresses barriers where English is not the first language and co-design programs with local Aboriginal organisations to boost the opportunity to obtain a licence locally.
Already several organizations have received money specifically to help their local communities obtain their drivers licenses, with five of the six groups in the Kimberley being Aboriginal. This is a huge step in the right direction.
The announcement didn’t get much attention but it deserves to.
It helps address a problem which has been long been recognised by the former Chief Justice, academics and those who understand the scale of this situation.
What Ms Saffioti has announced will undoubtedly help address a problem so big, with a solution so small (wallet size in fact) and leave a legacy for generations to come.
Not dissimilar to the recent $350 million announcement made by Housing Minister John Carey, this initiative reflects a Minister and a government that has decided to treat Aboriginal people not as those who are a lost cause but with a hope, dignity and respect so deeply deserved and long overdue.
- Zak Kirkup is of Yamatji heritage and is the former leader of the Liberal Party in Western Australia