Liam Jurrah and the Northern Territory's jail-fail


'Northern Australia Jail Fail' by Chris Johnston. A tourist map style portrayal of Northern Australia, featuring jails packed with Aboriginals located at the major tourist spots.Having lived for many years in the Northern Territory I have been concerned with the dramatically high crime rate and intrigued by the incarceration statistics in the Northern Territory. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics: 'The Territory's prison population has grown steadily over the last 20 years ... The Northern Territory has by far the highest incarceration rate in the country, at more than four times the national average and increasing faster than any other jurisdiction'. The rate of imprisonment in 2012 increased 1 per cent over the 2011 figure.

In other words we have a flood, and it's rising!

The year 11 legal studies text book I used to teach from suggested there are two principal functions of sentencing in the criminal court: to punish the offender, and to deter both the individual and the general public from similar acts in the future. That is, to make for a safer society.

The Northern Territory Government has legislated to direct magistrates and judges in sentencing to enforce harsher penalties to ensure that the message gets out to would be offenders that if they offend they will get the full treatment. They will go to jail and for a lengthy period. So why is the situation deteriorating?

The Law Society of the NT suggests a number of reasons, including:

erosion of judicial discretion and growth of mandatory minimum sentences; failure to offer effective rehabilitation; failure to establish alternatives to incarceration; increasing number of offences; increasing police numbers; demographic change: the Northern Territory has the youngest population of any Australian jurisdiction, with an ever-increasing cohort of people becoming old enough to commit offences; criminogenic conditions: a substantial portion of the Northern Territory population live in remote communities and town camps in a state of chronic poverty, with poor housing, health, employment and education.

The very nature of Northern Territory society — widely dispersed, with small populations living in tiny communities far from a range of essential services; experiencing a severe lack of employment and educational opportunity; and living in poorly constructed and inadequately maintained housing — has produced a marginalised population with little else to do but break the law. These are the forces pushing Aboriginal young men into incarceration.

The case of Liam Jurrah, celebrated AFL footballer, is instructive. At age 23 Jurrah had established a promising career. But in March 2012 he was charged with attempted murder in Alice Springs. After being acquitted of that crime he was arrested for excessive drink driving (0.27 per cent) in Adelaide in January 2013. Soon after, in March 2013, he was convicted of assault in Alice Springs and sentenced to six months jail.

biography written before these events, investigating Jurrah's transition to the AFL from a remote community at Yuendumu 250km north west of Alice Springs, is almost prophetic. Its author Bruce Hearn MacKinnon writes that 'mainstream society do not understand the general days' happenings in the remote areas of Alice Springs ... It's almost a war zone up there, these sorts of incidents are happening almost on an hourly basis day in day out.'

MacKinnon later concluded, during an interview after the conviction, that Jurrah has 'got to take some responsibility of his own actions and his own life. I'm not excusing him, but he's a victim at the same time of the sad circumstances of his community and Aboriginal people.'

Jurrah has significant resources at his disposal and good people to support him, yet he has come terribly unstuck. Consider the fate of so many of his relations. They are embedded in the institutions of non-Indigenous society. MacKinnon is right; each individual must take responsibility for their own behaviour. But so must the larger society and its institutions take responsibility to amend, repair and improve the lives of these victims of dispossession.

Instead we hear citizens call for increased police numbers because they feel unsafe. The increased police presence causes more arrests, more court appearances and more mandatory convictions. More young men go to jail. Then the government must at great cost build more prisons in Darwin and Alice, failing in the meantime to employ effective alternatives to incarceration. One of the consequences of this is the further marginalisation of prisoners, who are now cut off — in some cases by thousands of kilometres — from visits from wives, children and family.

And as the statistics show, each year it gets worse.

The prison system may well be achieving its first objective — to punish (hurt) the offender; I can't think of many ways to more seriously harm or hurt an Indigenous offender than to remove him from his country and kin for long periods of time. But on the count of deterrence and rehabilitation, the system is failing terribly. And it is possibly a result of the harm associated with imprisonment that the rehabilitation or correction element fails so significantly. The push factors are overcoming the deterrent effect.

Jurrah had his prison sentence reduced to three months. Hopefully in that short time he will not be too harmed by his experience. He will soon be free and hopefully will be given the chance to recommence his football career. But even if this happens the conditions confronting his cousins and brothers will not change.

So the prisons keep on filling — and none of us is safer.

Mike Bowden headshotMike Bowden has a Master of Aboriginal Education at Northern Territory University. He was founding coordinator of the Ntyarlke Unit at the Catholic high school in Alice Springs in 1988. From 1993 to 2001 he was manager of community development at Tangentyere Council. In 2005 and 2006 he was acting principal at Ngukurr School and Minyerri School in the Roper River district of the Top End.

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, prison, Liam Jurrah, Northern Territory



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Existing comments

The story of Indigenous dispossession and disempowerment is there for all who look carefully to see. Liam Jurrah's story is a familiar one. He's struggling with some thorny issues and the way forward, firstly, is to take personal responsibility for wrong-doing. This may mean not forgetting what has happened in the past but being sensible about future actions. When an individual has been let down by 'the system' trust is very difficult to re-establish. Jurrah needs to concentrate on positives in his life and find people who can continue to support him. And the system needs to learn also from past mistakes - a system that needs a 'humanity overhaul'.
Pam | 27 July 2013

Mr Bowden, I accept all you say. But you offer no solution, as far as I can see. But unless you can offer a just and practical alternative to incarceration, or at least acknowledge candidly that you can't think of any alternative, then your criticism of the status quo, however valid in its insights, doesn't enable us to move forward, and certainly doesn't enable us to morally stand over the current system and critique it for not moving on to something obviously better. I infer that you're not saying that serious offenders should get off scott free. Well and good. Bess Price says "I was told by a senior lawyer that no jury in Alice Springs will convict an Aboriginal person for murder if the victim is also Aboriginal and he or she is only stabbed once." If she is right, then there are probably killings in the Alice where the offenders are not now being brought to justice. As appalling as the results of incarceration may be, this is the equally, nay, more appalling, flip side. My two cents on a solution is that for a start we abandon the crazy solution of "property" rights we imposed on remote communities in the sixties and the socialist version of land rights that has existed since. Plus we should abandon special, discriminatory welfare for aborigines and allow them to either join mainstream Australia, or to pursue authentic traditional lifestyles (ie no subventions whatsoever, as was the case pre-1788).
HH | 27 July 2013

An interesting introduction to a painful problem, Tim. thank you. Since 1788 our Penal System has been heavily into incarceration. That is the nature of the British Penal system wherever it went. I think there are two problems here, which rub up against each other like tectonic plates. The first is the Legal/Penal System and the second the broken culture of dispossession most Aboriginals live with. Somehow, somewhere, sometime we in Australia must learn that our Penal System is Crim College. Good penal systems - look at Norway's - don't operate on our presumptions. We need to study them. Sadly, they are not in the English speaking world where we tend to look for salvation. A good Penal System and the sort of outreach we had during the NT Intervention, the latter more long term and designed to rehabilitate failed Aboriginal society and families, is what are needed. I'm sure people in the NT, like Bess Price, have real, practical ideas about what is needed. We need to listen to them as well as the armchair theorists down south. With rehabilitation will come responsibility. Sad that in Australia it's always a sportsman or woman who attracts attention to these problems.
Edward F | 29 July 2013

Thank you Mike.Yes, the push factors are excessively overwhelming. Can the NT and federal governments explain why indigenous people continue to be incarcerated in far greater numbers per capita than the rest of the population?There is a gaping gap and disconnect. Australians (anglo-saxon /european immigrants) do not have an inkling , yet claim to be superior,ie.intellectually sophisticated and 'civilised' !! The system has failed and will continue to fail until we recognise the importance of the first and true Austalian 'nation'.We must own our responsibilities become educated in another way of living, thinking. (learn the true Australian history :40,000 years of history and people so intelligent survived an ice age and following10,000 year drought.European civilisations did not.Why is our education system not highlighting and celebrating this ?Why do we know so little about ancient and living language and society? Western archeology has proved these facts yet we have still to accept this essential =sacred relationship and our push for dispossession and eradication continues. Ape man slurs expose our embarrassing stance. We have come little further than 1967when this amazing people were finally 'given ' human 'classification from sub human after managed under Depts of Fisheries Wildlife as flora and fauna.The world's oldest living culture should be protected as a sign of our intelligence.White Australia's assimilation policies are other deadly forms of incarceration. We continue to show no humanity.
Catherine | 29 July 2013

There is one explanation that has not been given any where nearly enough emphasis and that is "get a job". One needs not to think very long or hard to realise the many benefits that come from having a job. They are huge. The fact that there is a reason to get up ijn the morning and then be tired at night is just for starters. I should not have to expand on this to such an educated audience whom are themselves currently fully occupied during the working day through ideas and activities that will allow them (the readers of this) to acknowledge that at the end of the day they have achieved something. Relate this to the Aboriginal population in remote NT with an unemployment rate of 24% and that is not including the hundreds that are on a "disability pension" with the only disability being that they can not read or write. If we, the educated ones, concentrate on ways to find employment for these unfortunate people who are ending up in prison we will find it is not too hard. Why pray tell me is it that 1000 Aboriginal people in a community need only one retail outlet where a mainstream population of the same number is endowed with ten retail outlets. And who supplies them, staffs them and follows up on after sales service - the people of the town of course and they are doing what is called a job. The NT Government Corrections Department program called “Sentenced to a Job” needs to be given time and support to prove its worth however it will be of no use unless there are jobs to go to in communities. There is too much training for no jobs and a lot of the money spent on training should be put towards creating job opportunities. I could go on.... But you get the message? Jobs, jobs and more jobs will go somewhere towards solving the problem of incarceration rates. The more people have nothing to do the more likely they are of doing something that is wrong and unlawful.
Rollo Manning | 29 July 2013

Apologies, Mike. Called you "Tim".
Edward F | 29 July 2013

The indigenous commit more crime so there are more of them in the prison system. There are the same number of Chinese in Australia and you don't see them in prison.
Chris Gaff | 29 July 2013

Chris Gaff. Oh dear!
M.W. | 29 July 2013

Colour, race or creed should not make a difference to the sentence. Is it possible that some receive a lesser sentence for their crimes because of their colour, race or creed? Or is it based on their bank account and support services?
Fred Dunn | 29 July 2013

Chris I am not sure you or I could begin a menial job after removal from our family to a mission,dispossession of inheritance (land and law),enforced family separation by past governments, overwhelming generational grief from no parental love and guidance, suicide,extreme financial poverty, alcoholism and children with foetal alcohol syndrome, little or no western education,raging racism and perhaps glaucoma, diabetes and a need for renal dialysis hundreds of kls away AND a life expectancy of only 50 years. Celebrated indigenous footballers and artists show the world the vast difference in social and spiritual values between the oldest living culture and our rampant materialism.The real meaning of community is there for all to see; all is shared, 'owned' and there are responsibilities for maintaining the sacred. Men in this culture have lost their purpose and its not about getting a job in a supermarket or such but salvaging and reconstructing their 'extended' family-the reason to live. This population was very strong and healthy.White australian men could learn to look after their mob in a whole new way. Autonomy is the only way and as we have local government these communities must have real jurisdiction. Otherwise we are insinuating people are not equal in law. Ancient Australian culture survived because they had good laws.Their men have deep pride.
Catherine | 30 July 2013

Aboriginal people need the right to make at local level the decisions that affect them. Then they can move to the larger aboriginal groups and speak with authority on behalf of their people. With this strength they will then be ready to take their rightful place in Australian. Their treatment to date from many aspects of Australian society has taken their self-confidence from them. Walking between two rich and very different cultures takes a sureness that has been taken from our indigenous since white settlement.
Maureen Watson | 31 July 2013

Good article, Mike! The plight of aboriginal people in remote areas is a disgrace. These people are the most disadvantaged people in Australia and do not have acceptable standards of health, education, housing and job opportunities. They are especially disadvantaged because of the lack of good schools and libraries. They are also exploited by the white society - I heard a recent report that community shops, which are operated by white people prefer to stock processed food rather that better quality fresh food because of higher profit margins. I also believe that jailing people in the Northern Territory is totally ineffective because of a policy of punishment without rehabilitation and education. In Jurrah's case I also believe that he was given very little empathy and cultural support by the both the Melbourne Football Club and the AFL Administration.
Mark Doyle | 02 August 2013

Nice summary of a rollout Mike of - to use a current expression - a "sorry saga." Like the Essendon 2013 drama, no intention can be proven or imputed to an individual. The regime had a mind of its own, if you believe that? So too in the mad deterioration you narrate - quite apart from the injustice of it all - there is nobody who intends this situation ?
Peter Wearne | 29 August 2013


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