Fifteen years ago, Victoria’s first Koori Court was established in Shepparton to address the over-representation of indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
On Wednesday, an honour board was unveiled at The Connection to commemorate the service of retired elders and respected persons who have dedicated their time to reducing the number of Aboriginals caught up in corrections.
Deputy Chief Magistrate and Co-ordinating Magistrate for the Koori Courts in Victoria Jelena Popovic said elders had a vital part to play in the provision of a Koori Court.
Particularly in rural and regional communities, elders will know a defendant, and will question the person about their home, history, community and family. The elders are imposing, but they help get to the cause of the criminal behaviour — a system designed to break down the disengagement that indigenous people have had with the courts.
Magistrate Popovic said Shepparton had been a leader in improving justice outcomes for indigenous Australians.
‘‘It works well here because most people who appear before the court live in the area, and the elders are able to tap into that,’’ Magistrate Popovic said.
‘‘Here in Shepparton and other regional area, Koori Courts enable those connections to be made, and the elders’ input is a little more powerful than in an urban setting where the person’s connection is not as easily identified.’’
In the Koori Court, defendants have to speak for themselves and answer questions on why they committed an offence, and are forced to take full accountability for their actions in a way that is far more confronting than the mainstream court process.
Those honoured on Wednesday were Aunty Merle Bamblett, Uncle George Nelson, Aunty Sonya Briggs-Parsons and Aunty Margaret Briggs-Wirrpanda.
Magistrate Popovic said the process of the court was more effective in reducing criminal rates long-term. Processes often took an hour or more, where those involved would analyse the meaning behind the crime and explain how it had impacted on the community.
But she also said Victoria would benefit from implementing further support for indigenous people in terms of education, family and employment to really address the core issues that caused crime.
‘‘I think that we’ll continue to see an increase in the number unless we put more supports in place to support Aboriginal families,’’ Magistrate Popovic said.
‘‘The issues are far more complex than just issues in the criminal justice system. We should be looking at more diversionary services, to keep people out and encourage them through various rehabilitative programs to address the issues that might be leading to offending.’’