BRISBANE indigenous community elder Sam Watson has lamented the number of Aboriginal children being taken from their families and locked up.
“In 2016 it is the next generation of the stolen generation,” he said, while attending a park event in West End marking 10 years since Closing the Gap was launched to address indigenous disadvantage.
“Some areas of disadvantage are showing a marginal improvement, but what is chronic is the incarceration of our young people.”
Indigenous youths made up 54 per cent of young people in youth justice detention last June, despite comprising about five per cent of the population.
Closing the Gap campaign co-chair Jackie Huggins described the figures as “soul-destroying”, and said there was evidence young people were being disproportionately targeted by police.
“The mere fact that we are so disproportionately over-represented in the system itself is a national disgrace,” Dr Huggins said.
“What are we doing to prevent this and provide support to families and communities? An Aboriginal man can expect to go to prison more than he can expect to go to university.”
Mr Watson said being locked up was part of a vicious cycle for his young people.
“More indigenous children are being taken out of their homes than ever before,” he said.
“They are out on the streets and in the parks. We just pray every night for those children who self harm, do drugs – particularly ice. It’s an epidemic.”
Mr Watson also pointed to a close link between being locked up and suicide.
“Australia has the highest youth suicide rate in the world and within that, the highest group at risk is Aboriginal youth,” he said.
Aid agency, Save the Children, is also concerned at the impacts of indigenous incarceration.
Save the Children’s director of policy and public affairs Mat Tinkler said the situation was “a stain on our nation”.
“The financial impact is also shocking,” he said.
“It costs more than $1300 per day to detain a young person, which means $236 million is spent each year on keeping indigenous youth behind bars.”
Save the Children has called on the Federal Government to set aside $300 million in the next budget to fund urgently needed indigenous programs, particularly those that reduce the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.
“We know that young offenders often end up in adult prison, so it’s critical we break the cycle and help give young people a better future,” Mr Tinkler said.
“It clearly makes moral and financial sense to dramatically reduce the number of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders locked up in youth detention.
“We want to see taxpayer funds invested in programs that prevent youth offending and help indigenous young people build brighter futures, not paying for prison cells.”
Mr Watson said the only way to make government programs work was for bureaucrats to sit down with senior elders and talk about grassroots solutions.
“Closing the Gap is operating at a government level, but down here at the community level we are losing the battle,” he said.
Closing the Gap was launched in 2008 as a measure to reduce Aboriginal disadvantage, particularly in health.
But the latest report released in February showed Australia is not on track to close the life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians by 2030.
Amid warnings from Aboriginal leaders that the Closing the Gap project is doomed to fail without radical change, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull conceded that much more work was needed to meet the seven agreed Closing the Gap health, education and employment targets.
By Mark Bowling