5th Annual Empowering Women Changing Lives Parliament House Breakfast

Parliament House, Macquarie Street, Sydney

Tuesday 18 September 2018


Good morning. I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation whose land we all meet on today, and their elders past, present and emerging.

Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Gadigal yani U.

I speak to you in my language Bunuba. My home country is in the far north of western Australia in the central Kimberley. It is certainly a long way from here, but the serious issue of women’s incarceration – the reason we gather here today – is not foreign to either sides of this continent. Overincarceration and its life-threatening consequences grips our nation.

Thank you to the Sydney Community Foundation and its Women’s Fund, and the Keeping Women out of Prison Coalition for organising this event and promoting not just discussion but action. I want to applaud the work you all do. As the first woman to be appointed to the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner the recognition, realisation and the ongoing fight for the human rights of our Indigenous women and girls is part of my lived experience.

I know firsthand how difficult it is to put this critical social justice work in place on the ground, and the constant battles with what seem like insurmountable political barriers. I have experienced the personal toll of community and family members continuously coming into contact with the criminal justice system. When I talk about the criminal justice system I mean both the physical institutional structure of prisons and the attitudes and behaviours of those delivering corrective services on the inside of prisons and on the outside. As a whole our criminal justice system is not designed to respond to people with care, compassion and empathy. It is primarily interventionist, sectorial and punitive, and in too many instances when it comes into contact with our people it serves to erode our Indigenous communal structures of self-worth and care. But, it is organisations such as those represented by the coalition that counter this devastating intervention. By responding to women’s inherent strengths, resilience and knowledge you make women believe in their potential for recovery from trauma and in doing so you enable societal revitalisation.

It’s the on the ground movements like yours that have the power to transform society. What you do matters.

We all know the repercussions of uninformed policy – it can be life-threatening. So, this year, 2018, I have made it my priority to travel the country and listen directly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls about what matters to them. The Wiyi Yani U Thangani project, meaning Women’s Voices in my language, is hearing from women about our strengths, challenges, how we want to make changes, and the positive work being done across our communities. I am determined to make what our women say count. To elevate our voices to parliament to guide the policies and legislative decision-making which directly effects our lives.

Much of your work is related to this. If you work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls, I encourage you to look up the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project at the Australian Human Rights Commission and put in a submission to the process. My team are here if you would like information after this address.

I am hearing some incredible things from our women. But, the greatest concerns that I hear is that structural racism and discrimination pervades our institutions and serves to marginalise and punish our women. Clearly one of the most disturbing examples of this is the increased interaction between our women and the criminal justice system.

We spend an estimated $16 billion a year on our criminal justice system.[1] The lack of rehabilitation programs and training programs on the inside, limited diversionary options, and barely any supports to reintegrate into society means that we are failing the justice systems reform agenda, which is seeing our prison population skyrocket. I have heard this from women on the inside first hand, they are not getting access to the programs they need and too often are receiving inhuman and degrading treatment.

This morning I want to deliver a clear message, that is also set-out in the ‘Keeping Women out of Prison’ 2016 and 2017 Position Statement – we have the evidence to prove that our criminal justice system in Australia is in crisis. The crisis is not to do with the criminality of our people. Our society – our women and our youth – are not becoming more violent. The crisis is to do with unnecessary over-incarceration and a lack of desperately needed investment in community diversionary options. The system is broken. We are not.

From 1997 – 2017 there has been a 133% increase in Australia’s prison population.[2] Australian’s should all be questioning what has happened to our national social supports, our welfare, for incarceration to become so dominant in our lives.

Within this staggering increase Indigenous Australians remain overrepresented.[3] One of the most concerning trends is the 77% increase of women in prison over the last decade.[4] It is Indigenous women who account for this growth, we make up 2% of Australia’s female population and yet we are 34% of the women behind bars.[5]

In New South Wales Indigenous women make up 37% of imprisoned women. Many of these women are in prison on remand or are serving short sentences of between 3 – 6 months.

I know many of you in this room will be well versed in these statistics. Still, we all need to know the people and real social conditions behind these numbers. While we see these numbers as representing increasing ‘criminality’, public attitudes won’t change. Without public pressure the political response to be ‘tough on crime’, and the policy and legislative frameworks that invest in punitive responses instead of rehabilitation, will not change either.

The faces behind these numbers are our women, and children.

There is a direct connection between our women being imprisoned – many of whom are mothers who have experienced early life trauma and abuse – our children being removed, increasing psychological stress, and a lack of stable and secure housing. The truth is, poverty, domestic and family violence, abuse, and trauma, not violent offences, are the relational pathways that lead to women’s incarceration and a cycle of reoffending.

As our society has reduced investments into public infrastructure, justice and corrective services has come to replace the social welfare supports in women’s lives.

And as we all know being locked up for social and economic issues can end women’s lives. The recent reports and cases into ongoing Indigenous deaths in custody brings this horrifying truth into sharp focus. In these instances it is the institutionalised racism and discrimination that cause prison staff to disregard the real issues women are experiencing, to judge and demean women, which in the worst cases has caused death.

Ultimately this revolving door of incarceration transfers to the next generation, fuelling intergenerational crime. Having parents in prison and being placed in out-of-home care, removed from family and community, causes trauma and pre-disposes our children to coming into contact with the criminal justice system. I was particularly affected by a line in the Coalitions position statement that said, “our children have become the silent and invisible victims of crime.”[6]

This is unacceptable in a democratic nation. We don’t need any more evidence to know that this crisis must end. And it can. So, to set another tone for this morning’s address, I want to talk about possibility.

This year, the ‘Keeping Women out of Prison Coalition’ is raising funds for one of its members the Miranda Project. The Project is running as a pilot and is based on the landmark 2007 Corston report in the UK.[7] The Corston report stated quite simply that there is no reason for women to be in prison on remand, or short-term non-violent offences. And given the high rate of re-offending there is no justifiable reason to use prison as a deterrent for these offences. Women do not need prison ‘for their own good’. Women need their families and communities.

The report set out a vision for a radical reform of the justice system in responding to female offenders.[8] It recommended that women community centres be invested in to divert women away from prison, on community-based sentences. The centres would provide intensive, holistic, locally-adapted joined-up service supports based on women’s individual needs and on addressing the underlying factors that led to their offence.

Like all radical reform progress has been slow, but the network of community centres was established. And this year the current British government has renewed its commitment, investing millions of pounds into the centres.[9]

It is this investment that is needed to make community-based sentencing work in Australia and provide the alternative we desperately need to short custodial sentences. We hear it time and again, abolishing short-term custodial sentences is not possible without real diversionary options. As we all know those options do exist. Your work proves that. This year the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) in its Pathway to Justice report, also outlined several Indigenous specific diversionary options such as Justice Reinvestment, and models that provide for flexible and culturally appropriate sentences like the Koori Courts in Victoria and New South Wales and the Victorian Community Correction order regime.

To make these options real we need the concerted effort of all governments to translate the on the ground evidence into policy, backed by an implementation plan, serious budget allocation, and to set justice targets for all jurisdictions.

How do we do this? We need both structural and behavioural change. As the Co-Chair of the Close the Gap Campaign I strongly believe that justice targets must be included within Closing the Gap to hold the Australian Government accountable to reform of the justice system. I also believe that a national strategy is essential to outline how the criminal justice system will be reformed with specific focus on Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women’s needs. Included in this must be a policy direction which demands a change to the institutional behaviour of the criminal justice system. Eradicating racism and discrimination is key to stopping unnecessary incarceration through shifting focus to rehabilitation.

A fall in incarceration rates, through the implementation of these measures, will be one of the strongest indicators to knowing that we are breaking the cycle of discrimination and inequality and keeping families together within their communities. Keeping familial and social ties strong is one of the key determinants to a lifetime of better health and wellbeing.

To make these targets achievable governments must commit dollars. For every woman that is diverted from prison the cost of her imprisonment, which is around $237 a day and $86,630 a year,[10] must also be diverted. Reducing incarceration will likely bring down other costs within health, child services, and a range of other interrelated areas. These savings must be calculated from across government departments. And for each dollar that would have been spent, it must all be reinvested into what we know is the solution – our communities.

The Miranda project is working with a network of organisations specialising in the needs of women which reflect the essential elements of a healthy society. These are things like building pathways to education and training, creating employment opportunities, developing youth programs and initiatives, keeping family ties strong and cohesive, while also addressing underlying causes of offence, such as trauma. The dollars must go here into a supportive, caring, productive infrastructure. This is what holistic rehabilitation looks like.

But even when we have the knowledge of what works, and the NSW premier has made reducing domestic violence reoffending one of her key priorities,[11] billions has been committed by New South Wales to building more prisons to deal with a burgeoning prison population that we know is avoidable. This spend in public funds should be contributing to the common good, the health, wellbeing and safety of our society. Instead, it is contributing to instability and petty crime. It is not making any of our lives safer, but more dangerous.

Together we must ask ourselves what sort of nation do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a society where a lack of investment in public infrastructure increases inequality and punishes those in poverty? Or do we want a nation that grows the public good, enhances equality and reduces crime? Let me tell you, I believe in a society where everyone has the opportunity to be all they can. For that to be a reality we must all have equality before the law, and policies and legislation across all jurisdictions must rectify the impact of multiple inequalities and of generations of discrimination faced by all our women. To live in a land where everyone has a fair go, equality is essential.

There is no better place to address inequality and rectify injustice than with a radical reform of the justice system for all women, but in particular for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

This paradigm shift to change how we perceive justice and ultimately the way we live, is before us all in this room today. Like I said at the beginning, your work is hard, but in your everyday actions is the future we all want and need. To support this shift in the way that our systems operate we must be unified in our voice: that women are not a justice issue. They are the integral threads of a healthy nation, and our governments must invest in our communities to reflect this. And then in the future, justice will be delivered in the health and wellbeing of our families not in the walls of a prison.

Thank you


[1] Lorna Knowles, Australia spending more on prisons, policing than other comparable countries: report, ABC News Online, 21 November 2017 At.

[2] Joshua Robertson, Australia’s Jail population hits record high after 20-year surge, 11 September 2017 Guardian online. At. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/sep/11/australias-jail-population-hits-record-high-after-20-year-surge

[3] Joshua Robertson, Australia’s Jail population hits record high after 20-year surge, 11 September 2017 Guardian online. At. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/sep/11/australias-jail-population-hits-record-high-after-20-year-surge

[4] Sophie Russell and Eileen Baldry, Three charts on: Australia’s booming prison population, June 14 2017, Conversation online https://theconversation.com/three-charts-on-australias-booming-prison-population-76940

[5] Adriane Walters and Shannon Longhurst, “Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment”, (Human Rights Law Centre, 1st, 2017) 11.

[6] Position statement

[7] Corston report

[8] Corston report – radical reform of the justice system

[9] Female offenders strategy

[10] Cost of imprisonment

[11] Premier commitments.