Prisoners feel like animals: advocate

James Hall

Peter Chester knows all too well the rising rate of indigenous incarceration breaks down communities and destroys lives.

Between 2013 and 2016 the number of indigenous people being jailed in NSW jumped 25 per cent.

But Mr Chester doesn't need to be told the statistics. Five people in his family have served time or are in jail, including his ex-partner, his son, his daughter and both of his sons-in-law.

"It makes them feel like they're an animal," the board member of Sydney-based advocacy group Justice Action told AAP.

The Australian Law Reform Commission this week released a discussion paper on incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

That move was applauded by Community Legal Centres NSW chair Dr Linda Tucker.

"Aboriginal women are the fastest growing group in NSW prisons," she said in a statement.

"They represent around 2.5 per cent of the NSW population but 29.4 per cent of women in prison."

Dr Tucker believes the imprisonment of Aboriginal women has a significant impact on the number of children in out-of-home care, on homelessness and the criminal justice system.

An alternative to mandatory sentencing was needed so people aren't locked up for not paying fines, she said.

The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) this month said the number of indigenous offenders locked up in NSW could be cut by more than 500 a year if just half of those currently given a short prison sentence were instead placed on intensive correction orders.

Mr Chester argues there's a preference for imprisonment within the system.

His 22-year-old daughter, Talea Harris, has been remanded in custody for nearly nine months accused of being in possession of a gun he says wasn't hers.

But facts are irrelevant until alleged offenders are given a chance to clear their name in court, Mr Chester said.

"When they're caged up, some of them are frightened, some of them are angry, some of them are vicious."

State Greens MP David Shoebridge argues statistics show Aboriginal people are far more likely to be hassled by police, charged, locked up and refused bail than non-indigeous Australians.

There's "no question" indigenous people are treated differently before the courts, he adds.

"From beginning to end, the system is stacked and biased against them. That's what produces these kinds of distressing figures."

Mr Shoebridge argues it's not only more humane but also cheaper to deal with young offenders like Talea Harris by giving them access to rehabilitation and education programs.

BOCSAR director Don Weatherburn agrees there must be a realistic alternative to prison.

He cites the growth of indigenous people being imprisoned for stalking and intimidation offences which was eight times higher in 2016 compared to 2012.

That's due to changes in policing policy rather than any real increase in crime, Dr Weatherburn says.

"We weren't imposing prison sentences anywhere near as often for this behaviour just a couple of years ago and it's not obvious the world is a safer place as a consequence of this change," he said.

"We can put more people on community-based orders for these offences without suffering any increase in violence, intimidation and harassment."