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September 18, 2019
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Aboriginal-led justice bringing culture to court in Cherbourg

CHERBOURG, Australia: Aboriginal elders are involved in the running of two courts in the town of Cherbourg to help curb crimes and keep offenders out of prison.

While Aboriginal people are just 2.7% of the population, they make up 27% of Australia’s prison population.

Situated in the heart of Wakka Wakka country in Queensland’s South Burnett region, from the early 1900s until the late 1960s Cherbourg functioned as an Aboriginal settlement overseen by a government-appointed “protector”.

Bevan Costello, an indigenous Australian, regularly sits as a Justice of the Peace magistrate in the community, a role he juggles with his career as a teacher.

“I’ve come through an era where there was a superintendent sitting in an office just across here. That office is still there,” Costello said.

He said Cherbourg was known at one time as the dumping ground, where people were bought from all over the state and dumped here.

There are over 50 different tribal groups who now call the community home. With so many different families living together, Costello said issues in the community were often circumstantial.

There are two different courts that Aboriginal elders are involved in ie the Murri Court and the Remote Justices of the Peace (JP) Court.

The Murri Court is less formal and sees Aboriginal elders sitting alongside magistrates, providing cultural input to proceedings.

JP Court, on the other hand, is run by Aboriginal elders alone.

“Normally there are domestic violence issues, although of late we’ve had assaults and issues that need to be dealt with,” Costello said. “Our main aim is to keep these people out of prison.”

Aboriginal elders said public shaming was more effective to deter crimes.

Lillian Gray, another long-serving local JP magistrate said it was not uncommon for defendants to have to be publicly reprimanded by elders.

Elders believed the approach was more effective than if it was delivered by an outside magistrate. There is an agreement in the Cherbourg community that taking people into custody was not the answer to issues they face.

With a limited economy, there are few local jobs for the roughly 1,200 Cherbourg residents, many of whom rely on welfare payments.

In mid-2018, crime and social unrest surfaced and community crime was back in the news. Elders believed that diverting money from prisons to human resources and infrastructure in the community would bring the crime rate down.