OPINION: Our research shows how Australia imprisons thousands of Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities each year because of a lack of understanding, and a dearth of community-based services and support.

It also shows what can be done about this shameful breach of human rights.

We have data on hundreds of Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities that tells the story of their early and regular contact with police, courts and custody. And Aboriginal researchers in our team have spoken with Aboriginal people with disabilities, their families, communities and service providers in New South Wales and the Northern Territory so we can better understand their experiences.

What will make a difference

Based on that research, we are recommending these principles and strategies to underpin policy reform:

1. Self-determination

Self-determination is key to improving the human rights and well-being of Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities. This means an ongoing process of choice on matters affecting them, their families and communities.

Community-led knowledge, solutions and services to respond to the over-representation of Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities in prison should be properly supported and resourced. And we must ensure the input of Aboriginal women on their needs and aspirations given their particular disadvantage and vulnerability in the criminal justice system. We also need better services for Aboriginal people in regional and remote areas.

Education and cultural competency for non-Aboriginal organisations and people working in this area is crucial.

2: Person-centred support

Person-centred support that puts Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities at the centre of their care and that’s appropriate to their culture and context is essential. People should be supported to make decisions about their own needs and recovery.

Disability services and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) need an overt strategy to support Aboriginal people with disabilities in the criminal justice system. This initiative should also cover the needs of people with borderline intellectual disability and fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD), who may not be recognised as having a disability but who often need targeted support so they don’t end up in prison.

Specialised housing, services and treatment options should be available in the community to prevent incarceration and improve well-being.

3. A holistic and flexible approach

A determined holistic and flexible approach to services for Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities is needed from a young age to avoid contact with the criminal justice system. Early recognition by maternal and infant health services, early childhood and school education, community health services and police is important.

Governments should provide positive and preventive support that allows Aboriginal children and young people with disability to develop and flourish. We need supported housing and case management options for people with cognitive impairment to help keen them out of the the criminal justice system. The NSW Community Justice Program is a good example. It provides specialised intensive 24-hour supported accommodation to drop in support for people with an intellectual disability who have been in the criminal justice system.

4. Integrated services

Government and non-government services need to work in a more integrated way to improve referral, information sharing and case management, and to better support Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities.

Justice, Corrections and Human Services departments and non-government services should take a collaborative approach to program pathways for Aboriginal people with disabilities who need support across their sectors. All prisoners with a cognitive impairment should be referred to the public advocate of the state or territory they are in.

Better practice and prevention

It’s vital that Aboriginal understandings of “disability” and “impairment” underpin support for Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system. The particular experiences and perspectives of Aboriginal women should be central.

Better education and information on Aboriginal people with disabilities is needed for police, teachers, education support workers, lawyers, magistrates, health, corrections, disability and community service providers to help them understand and work with Aboriginal people with cognitive impairment, mental health disorders and complex support needs.

More resources are also needed for Aboriginal communities, families and carers so they can better support people with mental and cognitive disabilities.

Our data tracks the pathways of Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities into early contact with police, courts and custody largely due to a lack of appropriate health, education, disability and community services. We heard about the racism and stigma faced by Aboriginal people with disabilities that drives the cycle of over-policing, under-servicing and incarceration.

This predictable path is preventable. Early intervention and diversion into holistic, therapeutic, culturally responsive, local community-based services are essential. These will enable Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities to live with dignity and support in their communities.

Eileen Baldry is Professor of Criminology at UNSW and the Acting Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, Elizabeth McEntyre is a PhD Candidate in Social Work and Criminology and Ruth McCausland is a Research Fellow in Arts and Social Sciences.

This article first appeared in The Conversation and is the fifth in a series of articles by this research team. Click here to read more on the Indigenous Australians with Mental Health Disorders and Cognitive Disability in the Criminal Justice System (IAMHDCD) Project.