In 1987, Australia’s Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced the establishment of a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to investigate the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had died in custody since 1980. The inquiry was established in large part due to the public education and lobbying efforts of the National Committee to Defend Black Rights, the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, family members of people who had died in custody, and many civil rights supporters across the country.
The final report of the Royal Commission was released in May 1991 and contained 339 recommendations to deal with the serious over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in police and prison custody. In addition to looking into the investigation, arrest and sentencing practices within the criminal justice system, the Commission also considered the broader factors underlying the high rates of incarceration, such as cultural, political, legal and social issues, as well as higher levels of unemployment and ongoing disadvantage.
The report confirmed that the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detention was 27 times higher for police custody and 15 times higher for prison custody than for the general population. It was found that Indigenous people were more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for minor offences such as offensive behaviour or language. They were less likely to have legal representation or receive bail, and more likely to receive a jail sentence rather than probation or community service. The socioeconomic status of Indigenous people also affected their ability to afford fines, often leading to fine default and re-arrest.
The Royal Commission Report argued “the most significant contributing factor was the disadvantaged and unequal position in which Aboriginal people find themselves in society – socially, economically and culturally.” The focus of the Commission’s recommendations was the elimination of discrimination and disadvantage and the facilitation of empowerment and self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Consequently, the Final Report made many recommendations designed to drastically reduce the incidence of incarceration, including the use of imprisonment as a last resort.
Sadly, great strides toward resolving these problems have not been made since the release of the Report in 1991. While some efforts have been made to implement a few of the recommendations over the last Twenty-One years, the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Islander people has actually risen since that time.
Although comprising just over 2% of the population, Indigenous Australians account for 19% of adult prisoners and 41% of juveniles in detention. Indigenous men are 15% more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous men in Australia. This figure is 20% for Indigenous women, a number that increased four-fold in the years between 1991 and 2001. Indigenous youth aged 10 to 17 are in juvenile detention at a rate 17 times higher than non-Indigenous juveniles. Mandatory sentencing laws mean that even children can be jailed for the most minor property offences.
Deaths in Custody
With so many Indigenous people imprisoned, deaths in custody rates have risen by 150% since the Royal Commission’s Report. In the 1980s, 12.1% of prison deaths were Indigenous, whereas in the 1990s Indigenous people accounted for 17.2% of prison deaths. While Indigenous people are now less likely to die in police custody than 20 years ago, they are more likely to die in prison. Between 1980-1989, 67 Indigenous people died in police custody, while in the decade 1989-1999, 21 Indigenous people died in police custody, and 93 in prison.
Why, after 339 recommendations delivered by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, are incarceration and death rates still on the rise? Ray Jackson, a long-time activist in this arena, has expressed doubt that there is political will to end the rising toll, saying, “All they are going to do is build more jails and the magistrates will fill them up. The police will … continue to pick up people for the flimsiest of reasons, against their own recommendations that they should use arrest as a last resort. This will lead to more Aboriginal people incarcerated and more dying in custody.” (Debra Jopson, “A Sorry Business”, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December 1999, p. 15.)