Q&A : Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement

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Andrew Jackomos, former Director of the Koori Justice Unit, which coordinates the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement – a formal partnership agreement between the Victorian Government and senior members of Victoria’s Indigenous population. 

What drove the establishment of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreements? 

The first Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA1) was launched in 2000, in response to the commitment given at the 1997 National Ministerial Summit on the (lack of) implementation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody recommendations. Out of that summit came a communiqué which called upon all jurisdictions to establish partnership agreements to drive improved justice outcomes. Victoria’s first AJA came out of that. We were the first up and seem to be the last left standing. We have now had three Agreements signed with Victorian governments, with the most recent (AJA3) launched in March 2013.

What have been the biggest achievements? 

The first Agreement (AJA1, 2000-2006) laid the foundation for improved justice outcomes, through the development of robust partnerships and infrastructure and by establishing a new range of justice initiatives, the first of their kind in Victoria. The second (AJA2, 2006-2012) focused on the prevention of crime and reducing reoffending.

An independent evaluation of AJA21 found it had significantly improved justice outcomes for Kooris in Victoria and that the partnership structures set a strong foundation. It found there were lower numbers of Kooris in prison and fewer offenders and offences than expected, based on previous trends2.

Importantly, the social return on investment analysis conducted as part of the evaluation calculated gross benefits to Victoria around $22-26 million in 2011, representing a social return on investment of between $1.66-1.93 for every dollar invested. When you are going in to Treasury arguing for money, there is no better evidence you can offer than saying ‘not only is it producing good justice outcomes but it makes good financial sense’.

What’s made it work? 

We have a set of principles that we grew from the Royal Commission findings and recommendations around Aboriginal participation, inclusion, and partnership through all initiatives and policies that we design, develop, implement and evaluate. Other factors include strong leadership from both the Aboriginal community and within the Department of Justice, cultural strength underpinning all we do, the development and empowerment of community justice responses, and ensuring an equitable spread of resources within the Koori community.

What are the hurdles? 

There are many challenges, but the main ones are:

  1. Lingering racism throughout the justice system, unfortunately reflective of the broader community. 
  2. Adequate funding particularly in a constrained financial environment. 
  3. The pressure of the Koori youth demographic, with a growing number of young Aboriginal people around the country which is putting more demand on our resources. 
  4. The complexity with alcohol and drugs, and mental health. The drug ‘ice’ (crystallised methamphetamine hydrochloride) is having a big impact on our families and communities. 
  5. The continuing presence of family violence that is damaging our children, ruining families and threatens community cohesion. 

How important are the Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committees (RAJACs)? 

The RAJACs are central to our work and where our partnership between the Koori community and the justice sector begins. They are chaired by senior members of the Koori community, and from that, we get ‘buy in’ from the community. The RAJACs drive activity on the ground, they are our ‘eyes and ears’. It’s about getting Koori business as core business.

What are the priorities ahead? 

The Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework 2013-18 includes a commitment to close the gap in the number of Aboriginal people (youth and adult) under justice supervision by 2031 – this is the first time an Australian jurisdiction has set a target for closing the gap in justice outcomes.

To support that, the AJA3 (2013-2018) sets a range of priorities, including preventing and reducing the progression of Koori youth into the justice system and maximising the diversion opportunities for Koori women, particularly as many young women are young mothers. 

A big focus will be to reduce conflict and violence within communities and addressing the whole suite of issues that drive contact with the justice system. ‘Ice’ is one of those and a growing problem, but alcohol is still the biggest problem in our community, with mental health close behind. 

Are the Victorian AJAs a good model nationally? 

Each state and territory has to develop a model that suits its own circumstances, but the principles of participation and inclusion that we work by – ‘consultation’ is not a word used anywhere in the AJA – can and should be replicated anywhere. It might seem easier for governments to do the work themselves – but once you undermine those foundations, you weaken the whole structure.

1. Nous group, Evaluation of Aboriginal Justice Agreement – Phase 2, Final Report, May 2012, available at http://bit.ly/10PSkgB
2. The evaluation found non-metro regions of Victoria had seen a reduction in over-representation in prison, in some cases by more than 25 per cent; overall overrepresentation had worsened ‘but by less than would have been expected without the AJA2.’

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