The AJA is the longest-running agreement of its kind in Australia and has enabled the establishment of significant initiatives.
Professor Chris Cunneen, a leading criminologist specialising in Indigenous justice, noted in his 2010 study into the role of Indigenous Justice Agreements nationally that “the Victorian AJA structure has been independently evaluated, with Indigenous input, as being effective in building, and embodying the goals of effective partnerships.” [i]
Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 1
Action to improve justice outcomes has its origins in the 1991 report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the subsequent 1997 National Ministerial Summit into Indigenous Deaths in Custody, held to review implementation of Royal Commission recommendations. The first phase of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA1) was produced in direct response to the summit resolution to develop strategic planning, program delivery and monitoring frameworks in each jurisdiction, aimed at reducing Aboriginal contact with the criminal justice system.
AJA1 set out aims, strategies, principles, roles and responsibilities of its signatories, forming the basis for achieving equity between the government and the Aboriginal community. It also identified key results for monitoring and evaluation and embarked on a range of projects and systemic reforms. AJA1 was accompanied by an action plan containing 51 initiatives clustered around the six primary objectives of:
- Community participation
- Development of culturally appropriate programs and services
- Development of a coordinated and strategic approach
- Delivery of fair and equitable justice services
- Increasing community safety, security and wellbeing
- Reducing the risk for Aboriginal children and youth
Evaluation of AJA1
An evaluation of AJA1 was conducted in 2004 and reported in April 2005. While the review found no compelling evidence that over-representation is diminishing the authors noted the short time frame over which the AJA had been operating and the efforts that would be required to address entrenched social disadvantage in many Victorian Aboriginal communities. Notwithstanding this, the review noted the substantial progress made on the majority of the initiatives proposed and recommended the continuation of the AJA into Phase 2. AJA1 laid the foundation for Agreements to come. Important achievements included:
- establishing robust partnerships between the Victorian Government and Aboriginal community
- building infrastructure to assist in reducing over-representation
- introducing initiatives that improved justice-related outcomes for the Aboriginal community.
Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 2
The second phase of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA2) was launched in 2006 and aimed to improve Aboriginal justice outcomes through:
- minimising Aboriginal over-representation in the criminal justice system
- improving Aboriginal access to mechanisms designed to uphold their human, civil and legal rights
- eliminating inequalities in the justice system.
AJA2 again outlined aims, principles, objectives, roles and responsibilities for all parties and introduced a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation framework. It focused on preventing and reducing the progression of young Aboriginal people into the criminal justice system and in reducing re-offending of those young people and adults already in the system. It was built on a strategic framework of prevention, early intervention, increased diversion and reduced re-offending and looked at intervening at every point in the criminal justice system. It also focused on changing the justice system to be more responsive and inclusive for Aboriginal people.
AJA2 took a place-based approach and aimed to expand the number of locations and initiatives that could be established in partnership with local communities. It recognised the importance of strengthening community and building capacity to enable crime and justice related issues to be addressed locally.
AJA2 contained more than 50 initiatives with strategic objectives to:
- increase crime prevention and early intervention
- improve diversion and strengthen alternatives to imprisonment
- reduce re-offending
- reduce victimisation
- increase responsive and inclusive services
- strengthen community justice responses.
Evaluation of AJA2
In 2011-12 an independent evaluation of the AJA2 was undertake. It focused on change in Aboriginal justice outcomes attributable to the AJA2 over its duration, looking at overall impact on Aboriginal over-representation in the justice system and also performance against the objectives.
Key findings of the evaluation were that:
- Aboriginal over-representation in the criminal justice system was still increasing, but would have increased more without the AJA2
- there had been positive outcomes against all objectives, but remained more to do
The evaluation found that, although there continued to be over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system, the number would have been greater if not for the AJA2. The evaluation reported positive outcomes such as a reduction in the number of youth coming into contact with police and a reduction in the number of Aboriginal people re-offending. Further, the evaluation noted that community-based justice responses had increased along with an increase in the responsiveness of Justice Services. The place-based approach adopted in AJA2 was seen as providing stronger connection to the AJA for the broader Aboriginal community.
In monetary terms, the evaluators calculated that the gross benefits to Victoria of the AJA2 was approximately $22-26 million in 2011, representing a social return on investment between $1.66-1.93 for every dollar invested.
The evaluation also found that the AJA2 partnership structures had set a strong foundation for achieving outcomes to date and for developing future initiatives As a result, the overarching recommendation was for its continuation over a third phase (AJA3), enhancing the existing approach, as the best way to tackle the complex and intergenerational issues and achieve sustainable change over time.
Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 3
AJA3 built on the work done in the Phases 1 and 2 with the following six strategic objectives:
- Crime prevention and early prevention
- Diversion and strengthen alternatives to imprisonment
- Reduce reoffending
- Reduce conflict, violence and victimisation
- Responsive and inclusive services
- Strengthen community justice responses and increase community safety
AJA3 focussed on building stronger families and safer communities as a means of improving justice outcomes. The place-based approach was continued in AJA3 as an acknowledgment that traditional models of government service delivery have proven ineffective in addressing the levels of disadvantage experienced by Victorian Aboriginal people. Although many initiatives within AJA3 did not have a criminal justice-specific focus, they addressed the drivers of offending behaviour such as poor infrastructure, low education levels, high unemployment and low community capacity.
Cultural strength, or ‘being strong in culture’, was recognised in AJA3 as an important protective factor that is closely linked to social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
AJA3 explicitly recognised the importance of cultural identity and connection and emphasises cultural strengthening as a vital foundation which builds the resilience, skills, participation and wellbeing of Aboriginal people and protection against crime and violence.
The AJA3 model also identified the underlying drivers of Aboriginal criminal justice contact that are a whole-of-government responsibility. AJA3 identifies these as strategic intersection points where departments and agencies can work collaboratively:
- Poor mental health and alcohol and drug misuse
- Poor education and employment outcomes
- Unstable housing
Evaluation of AJA3
The evaluation of AJA3 found the AJA partnership has reached a level of maturation not replicated elsewhere. It has been instrumental in effecting real change in terms of embedding cultural awareness and the adoption of an Aboriginal lens for the development of new strategies, policies and initiatives. It has facilitated and enabled the development of strong and durable relationships between agencies and with members of the Victorian Aboriginal community. The partnership has evolved and there are now high levels of trust between the partners. This has not led to complacency on the part of any of the partners, and there remains a high demand for accountability and action.
Aboriginal Justice Indicators
Under the AJA, a range of measures and indicators developed by the Aboriginal Justice Forum are monitored to support implementation of the Agreement. The Crime Statistics Agency has developed a set of interactive data visualisations for key Aboriginal Justice Indicators.
The Aboriginal Justice Indicators contain information relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their interactions with Victoria Police, including data on alleged offenders, victims of crime, and parties involved in family violence incidents.
[i] Allison F, Cuneen C. 2010, ‘The role of Indigenous Justice Agreements in Improving Legal and Social Outcomes for Indigenous People’ Sydney Law Review vol. 32 no.4.