Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Chris Cunneen and David McDonald
ATSIC, Canberra, 1997
Reviewed by Luke McNamara
The post-Royal Commission statistics on indigenous involvement in the criminal justice system which are presented by Cunneen and McDonald in this book are distressing enough-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be overrepresented at all stages of the criminal justice process, and the level of indigenous over-representation in prisons has actually increased. Unfortunately, however, this is not likely to come as a surprise to very many people. Even more disturbing is what the authors reveal about why the levels of over-representation of indigenous people in custody in Australia have not fallen since the Royal Commission handed down its report in 1991.
According to Cunneen and McDonald, while there are examples of successful and effective implementation, governments at all levels have generally failed to match their stated support for almost all of the Royal Commission's recommendations with effective implementation.
Based on a review of the implementation of those recommendations specifically directed at reducing indigenous over-representation in police, prison and juvenile custody, the report concludes that there is quite a distance between the rhetoric and the reality. That is, while governments officially claim to have implemented most of the relevant recommendations, in fact, implementation has too often been inadequate. In each of the categories of recommendations reviewed-adequacy of information; Aboriginal and police community relations; responding to public drunkenness; police practices and procedures; imprisonment as a last resort; court processes, legislation and Aboriginal legal representation; Aboriginal youth and the juvenile justice system-the book reveals a pattern of inadequate implementation.
Nevertheless, the news is not all bad, and Cunneen and McDonald also describe a number of 'best practice' case studies which maintain a degree of optimism about the potential for improvement. These include the Community Justice Groups in Kowanyama and Palm Island in Queensland, and an Aboriginal-run farm for offenders at Warrakoo Station in New South Wales.
Moreover, the book's main message is that the 'blueprint' for criminal justice reform produced by the Royal Commission, while not a total solution, offers a practical and realistic way to reduce the current high rate of indigenous people in police and prison custody. The opportunity to achieve this reduction, which to date has been missed, is not yet lost forever. Genuine commitment by governments to bringing about the changes proposed by the Royal Commission is required. Without this commitment, books such as Keeping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People Out of Custody will, unfortunately, continue to play like a broken record.