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 2021.
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.”
Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt said improving education outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would reduce incarceration rates.
“As we’ve seen with tertiary education, once our kids make it there, they have the same outcomes as non-Indigenous Australians,” he told ABC radio.
But Labor senator Pat Dodson, who was one of the commissioners for the 1991 inquiry, said that was not enough.
He wants the Commonwealth to convene a meeting of state and territory ministers to address the issue.
“There’s been a lack of leadership and responsibility by the federal government to work with the states,” Senator Dodson said.
Change the Record, a First Nations-led justice coalition of 18 organisations, wants for six changes to address Indigenous deaths in custody.
They 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 per cent of the royal commission’s 339 recommendations had been implemented. Thirty per cent were partially implemented and 6 per cent had not been implemented.
Meanwhile, in NSW, a parliamentary committee report to be tabled on Thursday will make 39 recommendations to address Indigenous incarceration levels and oversight of deaths in custody.
Most of the recommendations have the support of MPs from the Coalition, Labor, the Greens and One Nation.
Labor’s Adam Searle, who chaired the committee that 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 NSW, no longer report on implementation of the royal commission recommendations, and the fact that so many remain unfulfilled, shows that NSW 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.”
The 2018 Deloitte review found the proportion of Indigenous people in the prison population had doubled since 1991.
It also found the mortality rate of Indigenous people in custody had halved.