Queensland’s Murri Court not seen as ‘whitefella’ court: report

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Queensland’s Murri Court not seen as ‘whitefella’ court: report

By Felicity Caldwell

Indigenous people who have appeared before the Murri Court overall end up being charged with fewer serious offences in the future, with many believing it is not a biased “whitefella court”.

But some offenders have gone on to commit even more drugs, weapons, forgery and theft crimes.

Ipsos has reviewed the Murri court in Queensland, after it was reinstated by the Palaszczuk government.

Ipsos has reviewed the Murri court in Queensland, after it was reinstated by the Palaszczuk government.Credit:Ben Plant

The Murri Court was reintroduced by the Palaszczuk government in 2016 after being cut by the Newman government in 2012.

It aims to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system by holding informal, less-intimidating hearings and including elders, alcohol and drug programs, and employment and health services.

An Ipsos report into the Murri Court, dated June 2019 and due to be released this week, found it was operating as intended in providing a culturally informed specialist court to help rehabilitate Indigenous offenders.

Stakeholders said the Murri Court had reunified families, reduced incarceration, prompted people to give up drugs and improve their health, helped people get jobs, training and car licences, and reinvigorated respect for community, culture and elders.

Many offenders took personal responsibility for their crimes and became more aware of how their actions affected victims, and there was a belief Murri Court was not a racially biased “whitefella court” but somewhere they could have a “fair go”.

The report found “good indications” that charges for serious offences were declining overall, but some charges, such as illicit drugs, weapons, forgery and theft, were increasing.

The review allocated offenders to four groups based on their experiences with the Murri Court – “feeling strong”, “staying on track”, “a chance to change” and “needing support”.

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“Needing support” had a high proportion of offenders committing cultivating illegal drugs, abduction and liquor crimes as their most serious offence after appearing in the Murri Court, while “a chance to change” had a high proportion of people committing assault, weapons and breach of violence orders.

But the report argued it was difficult to measure whether people desisted from criminal activity due to the entrenched systemic inequality that was experienced by Indigenous people, which the Murri Court alone could not fix.

“In light of this, it can be said that courts can only do so much to contribute to desistance of Queensland Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people,” the report says.

The report’s authors say more data is needed over a longer period of time.

The report recommends increased funding, increased payments for elders and more Indigenous Murri Court magistrates.

Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman said the evaluation showed the Murri Court, which now operates in 15 locations throughout Queensland, was operating successfully.

“It provides culturally informed and appropriate court systems that aim to assist in the rehabilitative efforts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,” she said.

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“Importantly, the report showed that Murri Court is valued highly by participants, community members and elders as a means of justice that is Indigenous-owned and more culturally appropriate than mainstream courts.”

The Murri Court was initially established in 2002 and abolished a decade later after the Newman government withdrew funding, although some sites continued due to community volunteers and magistrates running Indigenous sentencing lists.

When the Newman government cut funding for the Murri, special circumstances and drug courts in 2012, saving $35.7 million over four years, then-attorney-general Jarrod Bleijie argued the “only alternative” was to put up government fees and charges.

At the time, Mr Bleijie said the Murri Court was not reducing imprisonment rates for Indigenous offenders, although a study actually showed property offences dropped by 94 per cent.

In 2017, Brisbane Times revealed the Palaszczuk government was considering including alcohol-related offending in its reincarnation of the drug court.

A recent Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council report showed imprisonment of Indigenous women in Queensland has tripled in the past 14 years, and despite fewer Indigenous people offending, they were more likely to go to jail.

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