About the Yoorrook for justice report
“The ongoing over-representation of First Peoples in the criminal justice and child protection systems is a source of great shame for the Victorian Government”
– Premier Daniel Andrews
Why Yoorrook chose to investigate Victoria’s criminal justice and child protection systems
For First Peoples, the child protection and criminal justice systems have long been sites of systemic injustice. The removal of Aboriginal children from their families and the criminalisation of resistance to dispossession were state-sanctioned colonial practices in the lands now known as Victoria. They involved gross human and cultural rights violations.
There is an unbroken line between these actions, laws and policies and current systems. The highly contemporary disparate outcomes for First Peoples are evidence of this.
First Peoples children are removed from their families at the highest rate in Australia with around one in 10 now in out of home care. In the justice system First Peoples are around 15 times more likely to be in adult prison. Victorian bail law changes of 2013 and 2018 are linked to a 560 percent increase in the number of First Peoples entering prison unsentenced. In 2021–22, 87 per cent of Aboriginal women who arrived in prison were unsentenced.
The Victorian Government acknowledges that Victoria’s laws and policies and their administration are creating systemic injustice for First Peoples. Premier Daniel Andrews told Yoorrook that the over-representation of First Peoples in the child protection and criminal justice systems is ‘a source of great shame for the Victorian Government’. He acknowledged that the government is responsible for ‘ensuring that racism and injustice are confronted and addressed’.
Systemic racism lies at the heart of much of the systemic injustice affecting First Peoples in both systems. Systemic racism is racial discrimination that occurs through systems and institutions and goes beyond individual racist acts. It refers to laws, policies or practices that may, on their face, look neutral and applied equally, but which in practice unfairly disadvantage certain racial groups and advantage others.
The impact of systemic racism on the over-representation of First Peoples in the child protection and criminal justice systems is acknowledged by the Victorian Government. The State also acknowledges the individual prejudice and bias of some working within these systems.
Talking about systemic failures risks obscuring the responsibility of the people with the power to address those failures. Laws, policies and decisions are made and administered by people: from Ministers and senior public servants creating the laws and policies through to the public servants, police officers and others implementing them. All, in their respective roles, have the power and responsibility to address systemic injustice. They have human and cultural rights obligations to do so. Yet the evidence heard by Yoorrook shows that too often they have failed to do this.
First Peoples leaders, organisations and lived experience witnesses are united in their call for self-determination to address the systemic harms of the child protection and criminal justice systems. Self-determination is a collective right, with the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria describing the concept in the context of government systems as ‘the power to shape and make the decisions about the systems, laws, policies and programs that affect our communities, families and children’. For the child protection and criminal justice systems this means a fully realised transfer of power to Victorian First Peoples and, while this is being implemented, urgent immediate measures.
The evidence of injustice against First Peoples in the child protection and criminal justice systems is stark. From its inception, First Peoples called on Yoorrook to investigate injustice in these systems as a priority. This was a common theme raised by Elders in yarning circles Yoorrook ran across Victoria in the first half of 2022.
Further, Yoorrook’s Letters Patent require it to investigate and report on issues including:
- the forced removal of children and unfair policies and practices relating to child protection, family and welfare matters
- past and ongoing injustices in policing, youth and adult criminal justice, incarceration, detention and the broader legal system.
Yoorrook announced its intention to investigate these issues as a priority when it published its interim report, Yoorrook with Purpose, in July 2022. The change in these systems cannot wait until delivery of its Final Report. Yoorrook will continue to monitor injustice in these systems, and the implementation of this report’s recommendations, until Yoorrook concludes in June 2025.
How Yoorrook conducted this inquiry
Yoorrook began receiving evidence about the injustice experienced by First Peoples in the Victorian child protection and criminal justice systems as soon as it started meeting with and hearing from First Peoples in 2021. Yoorrook’s dedicated inquiry into injustice in these systems commenced in the second half of 2022 with the publication of two Issues Papers inviting submissions.
Yoorrook received evidence in different ways including:
- Submissions: 33 submissions from organisations and other experts in response to the Issues Papers. This was in addition to many broader submissions from individuals which talked about their experiences with either or both systems. Of 88 submissions received from individuals in 2022–23, over three quarters included issues about the child protection or criminal justice systems.
- Hearings: 27 days of hearings, receiving evidence from 84 witnesses in Melbourne, on country and from international witnesses.
- Roundtables and visits: 12 roundtables across Victoria with experts, people working in the criminal justice and child protection systems and people affected by these systems. This included five visits to adult and youth prisons.
- Documents: more than 4000 documents from the Victorian Government in response to Notices to Produce.
Yoorrook heard directly from First Peoples and the community organisations that support them. It received submissions and evidence from academics and researchers. It also received witness statements and oral evidence from Ministers and senior public servants from the Victorian Government and its agencies.
Yoorrook thanks all the people and organisations who gave their valuable time and expertise to this inquiry.
The right to self-determination of First Peoples is a collective right that is of fundamental importance under international law and especially to realising human and cultural rights.
This section outlines the centrality of self-determination to the findings and recommendations in this report. It also highlights the need for the State to increase its accountability, capability and compliance with human and cultural rights obligations.