In Summary

Analysis for The Australian by Professor Mirko Bagaric, Swinburne University of Technology

As many cities across the US burn following the killing of George Floyd, and with protesters demanding changes to deeply entrenched racism within that country’s criminal justice system, Australian politicians should consider themselves on notice: we have even worse levels of discrimination in our system.

The riots across the US, while sparked by the gruesome, filmed killing of an African-American by a white police officer, relate to far deeper and more profound problems with the treatment of black Americans. Discrimination against black Americans extends to all aspects of law enforcement.

Research has established that police are more inclined to arrest suspects from racial minorities than they are white suspects. In the US between 1980 and 2007, black people were arrested on drug charges at rates between 2.8 to 5.5 higher than white people relative to their respective populations, even though they have similar levels of drug use.

Studies also have found that prosecutors are likelier to file and proceed with charges against black rather than white suspects, including where their criminal records are identical.

The most obvious distortion in the US criminal justice system regarding the mistreatment of African-Americans relates to the manner in which they are punished. Sentencing is always the sharp end of criminal law and it is where the state acts in its most coercive manner against individuals. And it is here that the disproportionate suffering of African-Americans is most manifest.

The US has the highest imprisonment rate on Earth, and by an extreme margin. The US imprisons almost two million of its people.

Forty per cent of these are African-Americans, even though they make up 13 per cent of the population. The number imprisoned and the rate of black imprisonment are so striking and so disturbing that it has been suggested there may be an explanation in a presumption of danger and criminality once attached to enslaved African-Americans. Their rate of incarceration has dropped during the past few years — while Donald Trump has been President — but the need to reduce it further remains one of the most pressing objectives of black America.

The rioting by protesters across more than 40 cities in the US is as unjustifiable as it is unfortunate — violence never solves anything — but the killing of Floyd was merely the flashpoint for the expression of a sense of entrenched injustice and persecution felt by so many Americans.

But the US is not alone in maintaining a criminal justice system that operates unfairly against disadvantaged sections of society. As I noted on this page in January, one in 50 indigenous Australians is in prison. This is about 13 times more than for all other Australians.

Many Australians watching the US riots on the evening news may be surprised to learn that we imprison indigenous Australians at more than double the rate that African-Americans are jailed in the US. And it is getting worse.

The imprisonment rate of indigenous Australians has grown markedly since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody a quarter of a century ago recommended that indigenous people should be sent to prison as a last resort.

The grossly disproportionate number of Aborigines in Australian prisons is a national tragedy and a severe blight on our nation’s human rights record. More disturbing is that governments across the country refuse to implement measures to remedy the situation.

I can’t see that this situation would be tolerated in any other modern democracy. Future generations will wonder how and why we failed to address the issue.

The answer, at least in part, stems from the fact indigenous Australians are only a small portion of the total population — about 2 per cent. As a result, they have less political capital than other groups. Their voices are too often and too easily drowned out. By contrast, Maori, for example, comprise about 15 per cent of the New Zealand population and their imprisonment rate, like that of African-Americans, is less than half that of indigenous Australians.

The fact indigenous Australians are such a numerically small portion of the community should not be used to overlook the grotesque unfairness that is inflicted on them by the criminal justice system. Indeed, their voicelessness should cast an even greater burden on all Australians — in particular politicians — immediately to address this suffering in their community.

As it stands, activist groups make more noise for, and governments are more inclined to spend money and resources on, protecting unusual frogs and birds than dealing with our most pressing human rights issue. That indigenous Australians are not rioting in the streets is no reason for moral complacency. The burden of unfair institutionalised punishment we inflict on disadvantaged Australians is every bit as great as the situation we are watching unfold in the US.

This article is republished from The Australian. Read the original article.

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