Kings Canyon National Park

Current social justice work

Last financial year we provided legal assistance in approximately 11,000 legal matters to Aboriginal people living in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and in remote communities throughout our vast 900,000 square kilometres service area in the Northern Territory. Through our extensive casework, client advocacy, community legal education and remote community outreach work, we see the desperate need for improved social justice outcomes in Central Australia. 

Our current social justice priority areas are the over-representation of Aboriginal people in prison, alcohol-related harm, and homelessness and access to appropriate housing. These complex (and often interrelated issues) are contributing to the deep and persistent social and economic disadvantage so many of our clients, their families and their communities experience. 

It is our responsibility to speak out and to try and make a positive and enduring difference. We seek to achieve this through the provision of high quality legal advice, representation, advocacy and education, and by initiating and contributing to important law reform and policy development initiatives at a local, Territory and national level. Some of our submissions are publicly available here.

The over-representation of Aboriginal people in prison

The over-representation of Aboriginal people in our prison system has been well-documented since the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody released its report more than two decades ago. 2013 Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that the imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Northern Territory is 2,257.5 per 100,000. This is compared to just 172.8 per 100,000 non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This means that the imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Northern Territory is more than 13 times the imprisonment rate for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

The Northern Territory also locks up more people per capital than any other state or territory in Australia. Our imprisonment rate is 5 times the national average. This recent ABS graph shows how dire the situation in the Northern Territory is.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4517.0 - Prisoners in Australia (2013)

We know that on most nights in Alice Springs, 100% of the youth in detention are Aboriginal. Many are also in the care and protection system.

The high imprisonment rate hurts families and communities in Central Australia. Research also suggests that imprisoning a person can sometimes actually increase the risk of the person committing further crimes when they get out.

If we want to reduce crime, we need to help people address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour – things like problems with alcohol or drugs, mental health issues, family violence, anger management issues, poverty, disengagement from education or training and lack of employment, lack of access to stable accommodation, and marginalisation from the broader community. CAALAS' Prison Support Program sought to help prisoners eligible for parole address these issues as part of their pre-release and post-release planning. Unfortunately, CAALAS was unable to secure funding for this program beyond 30 June 2014.

We’re working hard to find ways to address the over-representation of Aboriginal people in our prisons. We are involved in a number of initiatives with organisations and government departments here in Central Australia to develop programs and strategies aimed at tackling some of the biggest and most complex underlying issues, like alcohol and substance abuse and family violence.

Time for justice reinvestment

CAALAS supports a concept called justice reinvestment which is about reallocating money normally spent on prison budgets to community-based programs aimed at crime prevention and community support. You can read CAALAS’ submission to the Commonwealth Inquiry into the Value of a Justice Reinvestment Approach to Criminal justice in Australia here, and the report on the inquiry here. CAALAS is also part of the Making Justice Work in the Northern Territory network, a coalition of non-government services in the Northern Territory advocating for an evidence-based approach to criminal justice issues, including through justice reinvestment. 

    Alcohol-related harm: alcohol is hurting everyone 

The Office of the Northern Territory Coordinator-General for Remote Services set out some key facts about alcohol use and alcohol related harm in the NT in the 2012 report, which show that the over-consumption of alcohol is harming our community. Many of the legal problems our clients experience are related to the harmful use of alcohol. Accordingly, CAALAS is working with a number of other organisations to advocate for evidence-based alcohol policy, and to argue against policies and laws which re-criminalise drunkenness. We don’t think a “law and order” approach to alcohol problems helps. We think that we need a well-resourced, evidence-based health and social policy response.

We have recently made a detailed submission to the Commonwealth Inquiry into the harmful use of alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and contributed to the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory's submission to the Northern Territory Inquiry into FASD.

Other work we have undertaken to improve the policy response to alcohol-related harm in Central Australia includes:

- As part of the Aboriginal Peak Organisation of the Northern Territory, facilitating the Central Australian Grog Summit in 2013. The Grog Summit provided local Aboriginal communities and organisations with an opportunity to discuss alcohol-related issues, speak to health and alcohol policy experts about these issues, and develop strategies to tackle them. The final report is available here. 

- We led a joint legal services submission to the Review of the Alcohol Mandatory Treatment Act.

- We have developed resources to assist legal services to provide quality advice and representation in relation to alcohol protection orders, and we have spoken out against this punitive scheme.

  · Protecting the right to housing: reducing homelessness 

In Central Australia, Aboriginal people experience high rates of homelessness, high rates of over-crowding in houses, sub-standard housing and lack of access to short-term and crisis accommodation. 

Our civil lawyers have been very concerned by the number of eviction notices issued to public housing tenants in Alice Springs. The eviction of public housing tenants should only occur as an absolute last resort, and alternative forms of accommodation must be made available to these tenants. In Alice Springs, few public housing tenants are in a position to enter the expensive and tight private housing market,should they be evicted from public housing. We are working with a range of organisations and government departments in the sector to address this issue.

Our welfare rights team has also been working on improving remote housing. Many remote houses are very run down and overcrowded, which significantly impacts on the well-being of Aboriginal people living in remote Australia. Poor housing is often a contributing factor to a range of other issues affecting our clients, including safety and family violence, wellbeing and health, and access to education and employment.

Last updated: June 2014