Outcry 30 years after custody deaths probe

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody released its final report 30 years ago today.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody released its final report 30 years ago today.

The 30th anniversary of a landmark report has seen politicians make pledges and advocates renew calls for urgent reforms to address Indigenous deaths in custody.

More than 470 Indigenous lives have been lost in custody since the final report of the four-year Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was tabled on April 15, 1991, five of them since the start of March.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility is one key policy which experts say would address the high Indigenous incarceration numbers.

The nation's attorneys-general are reportedly nearing consensus on raising it from 10 to 12.

A NSW parliamentary committee examining First Nations incarceration rates has recommended going a step further by raising it to 14 and developing therapeutic pathways for misbehaving children aged between 10 and 14.

"No child under the age of 14 should be held criminally responsible or incarcerated," the report reads.

"The medical advice is very clear that children under this age have not yet developed the brain function to fully understand the consequences of their actions."

The suggestion gained support from MPs across the political spectrum, but failed to win over the committee's One Nation representative.

The report's 38 other proposals, which largely won consensus support, include independent investigations of deaths in custody, more First Nations judges and better healthcare in prisons.

Federal Labor has committed to funding justice reinvestment in 30 communities across the country, working with the states and territories to dramatically scale up the program designed to divert people from the justice system.

All up, the opposition says it would spend $90 million on a package designed to address the high incarceration rates that lead to deaths in custody.

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt says improving education outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will 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.

The Victorian government pledged to implement the royal commission's recommendations, while outlining the progress it has already made and its efforts to pursue a treaty.

"Too many Aboriginal Victorians are still dying in custody. Too many Aboriginal Victorians are in custody in the first place," a statement released by Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes and other frontbenchers said.

The ACT's Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury acknowledged the rate of First Nations incarceration in the ACT - 19 times greater than the non-Indigenous population - was "unacceptable".

But in Queensland, the government said it will keep public drunkenness in its statute books, despite a key recommendation of the royal commission to abolish the offence.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said her state would not go alone on raising the age of criminal responsibility, but the issues were "being discussed nationally".

The commission's 339 recommendations were designed as a roadmap to address the disproportionate number of Indigenous Australians dying in prisons and police custody.

A 2018 Deloitte review found 64 per cent of the royal commission's recommendations had been implemented.

But academics have raised questions about the review's methodology and suggested the real rate of adoption could be much lower.

In a paper published on Thursday through the Australian National University, they call for a First Nations-led body to monitor the implementation of the recommendations.

Australian Associated Press