CANBERRA, Australia — Australian governments must urgently address the crisis of Indigenous deaths in custody, advocates say on the 30th anniversary of a landmark report on the issue.
The final report of the four-year Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody was tabled in federal parliament on April 15, 1991.
The inquiry’s 339 recommendations were designed as a road map to address the disproportionate number of Indigenous Australians dying in prisons and police custody.
But almost 500 Indigenous people have died in custody in the 30 years since the report, including five across the country since the start of March this year.
Thousands marched across the country last Saturday to demand action after the recent deaths.
“We are amongst the most incarcerated peoples on earth and have been waiting on real government action for too long,” said Meena Singh, legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre.
“If governments believe that the lives of First Nations people matter, then they would take urgent steps to remove unjust laws and policies that contribute to this crisis of over-imprisonment.”
The Human Rights Law Centre is part of Change the Record, a First Nations-led justice coalition of 18 organizations calling for six changes to address Indigenous deaths in custody.
These include raising the age of criminal responsibility and repealing punitive bail laws.
The group also wants all the 1991 royal commission recommendations to be fully implemented.
A 2018 Deloitte review found 64 percent of the royal commission’s 339 recommendations have been implemented. Thirty percent were partially implemented, and six percent had not been implemented.
In New South Wales, on April 15, a new parliamentary committee report is to be tabled in state parliament that will make 39 recommendations to address Indigenous incarceration levels and oversight of deaths in custody.
Most of the recommendations have the support of Member of Parliaments from the coalition, Labor, the Greens, and One Nation.
Labor’s Adam Searle, who chaired the committee which conducted the inquiry sparked by the global Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, said the report would deliver a “practical pathway” for action.
“The fact that governments around Australia, including here in New South Wales, no longer report on the implementation of the royal commission recommendations, and the fact that so many remain unfulfilled, shows that New South Wales and the country has lost its way on this pressing issue,” he said.
“The live question is whether we have the will to find our way back.”
Inquiry deputy chair and Greens Member of Parliament David Shoebridge said the committee’s intention was “not just to write another feel-good report” but to focus on practical changes.
“Ultimately, it’ll be judged not on the recommendations we deliver, but on the changes that we make throughout the rest of this calendar year.”
The recommendations will be particularly focused on ensuring deaths in custody are properly reviewed and on healthcare — including mental health care — in custody.
Searle said an “enormous amount of good work” had already been done to keep Indigenous people out of custody.
The 2018 Deloitte review found the proportion of Indigenous people in the prison population had doubled since 1981.
It also found the mortality rate of Indigenous people in custody had halved.
(Edited by Vaibhav Vishwanath Pawar and Ritaban Misra. Map by Urvashi Makwana)