The number of Aborigines in Western Australian prisons at any given time could be reduced by as much as 15 per cent under a new pilot program set to commence early next year.
Corrective Services Minister Joe Berinson said Aboriginal elders in the Kimberley, Pilbara and Murchison were working with the Department of Corrective Services developing the program.
The aim was to have Aborigines from remote areas who were convicted of minor offences diverted from the prison system into the care and supervision of Aboriginal communities.
This would be done under modified home detention and other community based corrections schemes.
Mr Berinson said the initiative directly addressed concerns raised by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
"The tribal and country Aborigines targeted by the program are a particularly high risk group in terms of the stress and trauma associated with imprisonment," he said.
A range of Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley, Pilbara, and Murchison will participate in the pilot scheme, which has the potential to divert up to 80 Aboriginal offenders from prison at any one time.
Aborigines comprise only 2.7 per cent of the population, yet account for more than half of all prison receivals, with 70 per cent of offenders serving sentences of six months or less.
"While courts can already divert offenders from prison using home detention, work release, probation or community work orders, particular problems exist in making those programs accessible to Aborigines from remote areas," Mr Berinson said.
"A major difficulty has been the need to ensure adequate supervision of offenders once they are released, and to provide meaningful work as part of the release order.
"The Department recognised that the only effective answer was for Aboriginal communities to actively participate actively in developing and managing the program."
The result was a pilot program which would:
· enable the release of suitable prisoners to participating Aboriginal communities, where they would be supervised by community members; and -
· appoint Aboriginal advisory officers to selected country courts to give expert, culturally-relevant advice on local non-custodial sentencing options and programs.
If the pilot scheme proved successful, it would be expanded to other parts of the State with potential to then further reduce the number of Aborigines in prison.
Mr Berinson said communities participating in the program would receive specialised training, with supervision co-ordinators recruited from within the communities.
"The second part of the initiative - the appointment of Aboriginal advisory officers - will ensure courts are aware of all non-custodial options in particular areas," he said.
"This should encourage greater use of community supervision options, which may not have been favoured previously because they were seen to be ineffective."
The State Government has allocated more than $191,000 for the program this financial year to cover salaries, transport, work equipment, accommodation needs and other facilities.