NACCHO News : Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody 25th anniversary today : What’s changed?


“Mr Scullion‟s statement today cited “The success in bringing down the rate of deaths in custody for First Australians”. However, the tragic fact is that nine Indigenous people died in custody in 2012-13, the same number as in 1991.

“Today, one in five people who die in custody are Indigenous. This must not be presented as a success; it is a disaster in a nation where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up less than 3 per cent of our population.”

Amnesty International Media Release 14 April 2016

April marks 25 years since a royal commission presented a formula to prevent Aboriginal deaths in police custody. But how much has changed? By Ella Archibald-Binge

“More punitive responses to law and order” since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody finished in 1991 work against its recommendations to decrease deaths behind bars, says UNSW Criminology Professor Chris Cunneen speaking on The Piont

“Leading up to the royal commission…there’d been a whole range of reforms in the criminal justice system and governments were talking generally about the need to reduce levels of imprisonment,” Mr Cunneen told The Point.

But by the late 1980s, early 1990s, that changed, he says.

“We moved into a period of two-and-a-half decades now of much more punitive responses to law and order, and that really went against the basic thrust of what the Royal Commission was on about.”

In 1987, then prime minister Bob Hawke made history by announcing the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The announcement was spurred largely by a strong political campaign led by Aboriginal activists following a series of Indigenous deaths in police custody.

After examining 99 deaths over a decade, the commission delivered its findings including 339 recommendations.

The royal commission’s key directives were to keep people out of jail wherever possible. But there have been 365 Indigenous deaths in prison and police custody from the time 1989 to 2013.

Mick Dodson, who was counsel assisting during the inquiry, told The Point “the formula’s there to stop it. I don’t know if the political will is”.

“Almost every death that occurred in custody after the Royal Commission recommendations, invoked the non-implementation of at least one recommendation.

It’s bordering on desperation or despair that it’s still happening.”

He says he has a clear directive for policy makers: “The recommendations of the Royal Commission are still relevant. Implement them.

Programs in some states have taken on board recommendations of the inquiry, such as the Custody Notification Service.

It requires NSW and the ACT police to contact the Aboriginal Legal Service when an Indigenous person is arrested.

There have been no Aboriginal deaths in custody in NSW since its implementation in 2007.

The service has just received federal government funding until 2019, but its long-term financing is unclear

Professor Cunneen says funding insecurity is a common issue for community-driven programs.

“The problem is that they’re inadequately resourced or they’re not respected by governments,” he says.

He says that reflects a move away from the royal commission recommendation that the government commit to Indigenous self-determination.

“It was a fundamental principle of the Royal Commission that all the changes needed to occur in the context and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination.”


“One-fifth of the 750 deaths in custody that have occurred in the 25 years since the 1991 Royal Commission were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,”

Professor Pat Dodson has told the Press Club.

Prof Dodson said a solution may be to lower incarceration rates by promoting ‘justice reinvestment’.

This is where a portion of the money normally spent by governments on imprisonment, $292 a day on average in Australia, is invested into programs to stop people offending in the first place or to try to prevent them re-offending.

“Accepting the status quo permits the criminal justice system to continue to suck us up like a vacuum cleaner and deposit us like waste in custodial institutions,” he told the press club in Canberra.

“I would hope that we are better than that. We must be better than that. There is no choice here,” he said.

“Justice reinvestment is one of the new approaches in dealing with rising incarceration rates of Indigenous peoples around the world.”

Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The Royal Commission examined the circumstances of 99 First Australians who died in custody between 1980 and 1989.

Its report was presented to the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and represented a watershed moment in Indigenous Affairs. Many of the Royal Commission’s 339 recommendations, particularly those focused on reducing the risk of death in custody, have been implemented by state and territory governments.

25th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Minister for Indigenous Affairs
Senator the Hon. Nigel Scullion

On the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission, it is important to acknowledge the progress that has occurred to reduce Indigenous deaths in custody.

At the time the Royal Commission was established in 1989, First Australians were more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous Australians. This is no longer the case. Over the past 15 years, in all but one year (2002-03), an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person has in fact been less likely to die in custody than a non-Indigenous person.

The success in bringing down the rate of deaths in custody for First Australians should bring hope that through the collective efforts of all governments and the wider community, we can reverse the trends that have seen increasing numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

In this spirit, I am confident the Australian Government can continue to work closely with the states and territories that control the criminal justice system to address the issues that have led to the unacceptably high rates of Indigenous incarceration.

In his Closing the Gap speech in February this year, the Prime Minister brought a renewed focus to the issue of Indigenous incarceration with his announcement that the Commonwealth will lead the development of a “prison to work” blueprint to reduce recidivism and address one of the key drivers of contact with the criminal justice system – long-term unemployment.

This is building on the momentum generated last April when the states and territories agreed to work with the Australian Government to get people from prison to employment and in so doing help affected Indigenous people take the first practical steps towards a better life.

There are very clear lines of responsibility in this important area of public policy. The states and territories are responsible for directly running the criminal justice system. The Australian Government has responsibility for addressing some of the underlying causes that increase the likelihood of a person coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

The Australian Government will continue to complement the work of the states and territories by addressing the drivers of offending. The key to this is increasing educational, training and employment opportunities for First Australians while reducing the misuse of alcohol and other drugs.

Reconciliation Australia: Twenty five years on, alarming incarceration rates see barriers to reconciliation remain

Twenty-five years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Reconciliation Australia reaffirms its calls for justice targets and early investment to reduce the nation’s alarmingly high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates.

April 15th 2016 marks the anniversary of the 1991 tabling of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report in Federal Parliament. This landmark Report led to the nation’s first formal reconciliation process with establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation – a formal process of reconciliation between Aboriginal people and the broader community, continued today by Reconciliation Australia.

This anniversary marks an extremely significant step in Australia’s reconciliation journey and broader Australian history.

Since this time, significant achievements have been made which are positive signs that Australia is examining injustices of the past: The Apology, the bridge walks, the Closing the Gap framework, native title and Stolen Generations reparations schemes.

This progress may not have been as swift without the Commission’s final recommendation and consequent establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

However, 25 years on, the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as both victims and offenders in the criminal justice system remains one of the most glaring disparities between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and non-Indigenous Australians today.

Reconciliation Australia believes that this would not be the case if the Commission’s other recommendations were implemented to the same effect as its final recommendation.

As such, Reconciliation Australia supports the work of the Change the Record campaign, and reaffirms earlier calls for the inclusion of justice targets in the Closing the Gap framework.

The recent release of the State of Reconciliation in Australia report confirms the Commission’s Report – reconciliation is no single issue or agenda. Instead, this involves a holistic and comprehensive picture of many dimensions that must be weaved together.

These includes dimensions of historical acceptance, race relations, equality and equity, institutional integrity and unity. Reconciliation is only as strong as its weakest dimension.

Reconciliation Australia encourages all Australians to sign the Change the Record Pledge, a campaign working to close the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment by 2040.

Further background to this release can be found in Reconciliation Australia’s recent State of Reconciliation in Australia report.

Indigenous prison rate is a national crisis, and our international shame

Unpaid fines or drinking in public should never be a death sentence. Yet, for Indigenous people, this is still the case, a generation on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Twenty-five years ago, the royal commission laid out a path that would address inequality and disadvantage, and end preventable Indigenous deaths in custody.

We didn’t follow that path then, but there are real solutions we can put in place – right now – that will make the next quarter of a century more fair and just for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


Demonstrators protest deaths in custody outside the G20 Summit in Brisbane. Photo: Glenn Hunt

To end unnecessary Indigenous deaths in custody, we must end the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody.

This means changing laws that disproportionately affect Indigenous people, such as mandatory sentencing in Western Australia and paperless arrest laws in the Northern Territory.

It means Indigenous people having access to culturally appropriate legal services. For example, Indigenous people have not been dying in NSW or ACT police cells since the Custody Notification Service was introduced there.

We need to work with Indigenous communities to address the underlying causes of contact with the justice system: family violence, education, mental health, substance abuse, child protection, poverty, housing.

And governments can do one concrete thing – today – that has been proved to reduce Indigenous people’s contact with the justice system: adopt national justice targets.

National justice targets will give federal and state governments a goal to work towards, if they are serious about lowering Indigenous incarceration rates. Justice targets will mean a national reporting card each year, so we can see what strategies are in place, what funds are being allocated, and where progress is being made. They are the best way to keep governments accountable.

We’ve seen these targets adopted in NT and Victoria, and the ACT has almost halved Indigenous youth detention since adopting targets.

Yet a piecemeal approach isn’t enough. We need strong national leadership from Malcolm Turnbull, and no more excuses. These are not “state and territory issues”. In  Australia, 27 per cent of our prison population is Indigenous – that is a national crisis, and our international shame.

We owe it to the next generation of Indigenous kids to make this right. It is unacceptable that more than half of the youth detention population is Indigenous. Once a kid is in the sinking quicksand that is the justice system, it’s difficult to get out, so many of them end up reoffending as adults.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities know what works for their kids to break the cycle of incarceration. Amnesty has spoken with many Indigenous-led programs working on preventing and diverting kids from the justice system: the Yiriman Project and Nowanup cultural camps in WA; Mona Horsemanship Program in Mount Isa; Tribal Warrior’s boxing program in Redfern. Strength in identity and culture is strength within yourself. What Indigenous-led programs need are funding and support to help young people turn things around.

We know the solutions. If we act now we’ll give the next generation of Indigenous kids a chance at a better future – not behind bars but with their communities, strong in their culture, and thriving.

Roxanne Moore is an Indigenous rights campaigner with Amnesty International

Deaths in custody: Indigenous children 24 times more likely to be locked up

Beau Foster, 20, was leaving work with two friends when he saw his bus coming, and he did something we’ve nearly all done: he ran to catch it.

But what happened late last year is not something that’s happened to most of us.


Youth leaders: Just Reinvest ambassador Beau Foster (left) with Kool Kids Club worker Keenan Mundine. Photo: Wolter Peeters

“The policeman come, and full on stop me for no reason, thinking I was up to something because I was running, and he came up straight away and pulled out his baton,” said the young Indigenous man.

Upset and shaking, Mr Foster rang Siobhan Bryson at the Weave Youth and Community Centre across the road from the stop near the skate park in Waterloo. As she was approaching, Ms Bryson saw a highway patrol vehicle take off.

“Beau’s only crime was running for a bus while being black,” said Ms Bryson, Weave’s operations manager, who has since tried to identify the policeman and report him.

“My son is the same age, and if he and two friends were running for a bus, nobody would bat an eyelid.”

Mr Foster, who grew up in La Perouse, said that “sort of stuff happened to me all the time growing up”.

Even as a young boy, Mr Foster, who is now an ambassador for Just Reinvest NSW, would run from the police if he was in trouble rather than running to them for help as most white Australian children are taught.

Indigenous children are 24 times more likely to be locked up than non-Indigenous children. There are children as young as 10 and 11 in detention.

It is 25 years on Friday since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody warned of disastrous repercussions if nothing was done to stop the problem of “too many Aboriginal people ending up in custody too often.”

Aboriginal activists and researchers say the problems have only got worse: since the report, there have been 341 Indigenous deaths in custody, and the number of Aboriginal people in prison has doubled to 27 per cent.

Indigenous children account for 6 per cent of Australia’s total youth population, but amount for more than half of those children across Australia who are locked up. In the Northern Territory, they represent more than 90 per cent of those children in detention.

“Our kids are less likely to be cautioned, more likely to end up in detention, and more likely to get caught up in a cycle of reoffending,” said Roxanne Moore, an Indigenous rights campaigner with Amnesty International.

Very young children were being detained in police lock ups for no reason, often in breach of the international convention on the rights of the child. She cited the case of a 10 year-old boy arrested in the Northern Territory for sneaking into a movie whose case went to court.

“He could barely see over the bar table (in the courtroom) and he was terrified. This sort of situation doesn’t need to be resolved in the justice system,” said Ms Moore.

In WA in 2009, a 12 year-old boy who had been given a 70 cent Freddo Frog from his friends, which turned out to be stolen, was charged with receiving stolen goods and faced court. “The charges were ultimately dropped. But he ended up spending a few hours in custody,” said Ms Moore.

Early interaction with the law usually foreshadowed problems in adult life.

“If someone enters a juvenile detention centre, they are more likely to enter an adult prison than if they are diverted at an early stage,” said Thalia Anthony, an associate professor of law with the University of Technology Sydney, told a public forum, UTSpeaks: Fatal Injustice, held to mark the anniversary.

Young people sentenced to juvenile detention were 74 per cent more likely to end up in prisons than those who were diverted, said Dr Anthony.

Often a long history of prejudice and misunderstanding – on both sides – sets the tone for interactions between police and the local indigenous community.

Youth leader Keenan Mundine, 29, had a troubled youth but has turned his life around. “Police, I had seen them every day, all day, stopping my people, searching my brothers, my uncles, chasing people, kicking doors in,” he said of his youth in Redfern.

He spent most of his twenties in prison, including three years on remand while fighting a breaking and entry charge before his case was heard. “That’s three years not knowing when this door will open, not knowing when this gate is going to open, not knowing when I am coming home, fighting a breaking and enter charge from behind bars.”

A new father, he now studies and works on the Kool Kids Club, a program which helped Beau Foster.

“I am proof that you can turn your life around, it is possible,” said Mr Mundine.

Ms Bryson said Weave’s programs like Kool Kids had a proven track record, and saved taxpayers money.

Of the children in the program, 40 per cent of children had an immediate family member in jail, and another 40 per cent had a parent or carer who had a drug or alcohol problem.

Indigenous children account for 50% of juveniles in detention in NSW. Yet not one of the hundreds of children who had attended the Kool Kids Club – since it started in 2001 – had contributed to this statistic.

“So it is working,” said Ms Bryson.

It cost $270,000 to support all these children and their families every year compared to $237,000 a year it cost to lock up one person in juvenile detention, she said.

Note: an earlier version of this article mistakenly said more than 50% of indigenous children are in custody. It has been corrected to read more than 50 per cent of juveniles in detention are Indigenous.

Amnesty International Media Release 14 April 2016

Mr Scullion misleading on deaths in custody – Indigenous kids deserve better

Ahead of tomorrow‟s 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has glossed over the failures of successive governments to reduce Indigenous deaths in custody and soaring Indigenous incarceration rates.

A statement issued by the Minister today attempted to disguise the fact there has been no overall drop in the reported number of Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991, and that Indigenous incarceration has escalated to unprecedented levels.

“The inaccuracies in the minister‟s statement continue the dodging of responsibility we have seen for 25 long years since the Royal Commission,” said Julian Cleary.

“Successive governments have sat on their hands for an entire generation while the problem has escalated.”

A key finding of the 1991 Royal Commission was that „too many Aboriginal people are in custody too often‟. It noted the urgent need for governments to work with Indigenous organisations to reduce Indigenous children‟s involvement in the justice system, and recommended the Commonwealth Government work with States and Territories to follow the Royal Commission‟s roadmap for change.

Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children – some as young as 10 years old – are 24 times more likely to be locked up than their schoolmates.

“Minister Scullion‟s statement attempted to pass the buck to the States and Territories, but these statistics prove this is a crisis at a national level, and requires Federal Government action,” said Julian Cleary.

Amnesty International, as part of the Change the Record Coalition, is calling on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to take the lead in developing a national strategy to address this broken system with the central involvement of Indigenous organisations.

This includes adopting national justice targets, which will give federal, state and territory governments measurable goals to work towards to lower Indigenous prison and family violence rates.

National justice targets will keep Governments accountable by annually highlighting what strategies are in place, what funds are being allocated, and where progress is or isn‟t being made.

Mr Scullion‟s statement today cited “The success in bringing down the rate of deaths in custody for First Australians”. However, the tragic fact is that nine Indigenous people died in custody in 2012-13, the same number as in 1991.

Mr Cleary said, “Today, one in five people who die in custody are Indigenous. This must not be presented as a success; it is a disaster in a nation where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up less than 3 per cent of our population.”

The number of Indigenous deaths in custody in 2009-10 was the equal highest on record, with the Australian Institute of Criminology noting “there is a concerning trend emerging, as the actual number of Indigenous deaths in prison are rising again.”

Mr Scullion‟s statement also falsely claimed that many of the Commission‟s recommendations have been implemented.

Crucially, the very first recommendation of RCIADIC included that the federal and state governments should report annually on their progress in implementing the Royal Commission‟s 339 recommendations.

In May 2015, law firm Clayton Utz completed exhaustive analysis of the progress of the implementation of the recommendations for Amnesty International. This found not only have Federal and State Governments failed in their promise to report annually on their progress in implementing the RCIADIC recommendations, they have also failed to implement key recommendations.

“Without real action now, this Federal Government will be responsible for another generation of wasted potential, a failing system and preventable deaths. This generation of Indigenous kids deserve better, Julian Cleary said.


Indigenous incarceration indeed remains a national shame. The Australian Bureau of Statistics paints a bleak picture, with rates of incarceration continuing to rise markedly between 2002 and 2012. West Australia is beyond crisis point, with the rate of incarceration for Indigenous Australians 20 times higher than non-Indigenous.

Source: ABS.

Source: ABS.

Despite the 1991 Royal Commission, deaths in custody have increased, along with the surging incarceration rate. There is little reason to think that the next generation of Indigenous Australians will fare much better.

A generation of government failure – time for change


Change the Record (CTR) Coalition members and supporters have gathered in Canberra today for a forum to mark 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC).

The Royal Commission’s 339 recommendations were extensive and included various measures to address the systemic racism within our unjust justice system, as well as broader actions to address Aboriginal disadvantage. But 25 years on many of the recommendations remain unimplemented.

CTR Co-Chair Shane Duffy said, “The handing down of the final report 25 years ago was a watershed moment in Australian history. It’s now a generation on and governments at all levels have still failed to act”.

“We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are strong and resilient, but successive governments’ policies have been ineffective – the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment and experience of violence continues to devastate our communities.”

“This is a national crisis and requires an immediate response” said Mr Duffy.

In 1991 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were seven times more likely to be in prison, now in 2016 that figure has risen to 13 times. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are more likely to go to prison than university. At the same time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are experiencing high rates of violence, being 34 times more likely to be hospitalised for family violence related assault.

Last year the Change the Record Coalition released a Blueprint for Change – which provides a critical roadmap for governments to draw upon.

The CTR Coalition calls on all political parties to place the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities at the heart of policy decisions, and urgently prioritise imprisonment and family violence rates.

Fellow CTR Co-Chair Dr Jackie Huggins said, “Governments at all levels can honour the findings of RCIADIC by taking immediate steps to tackle these issues head on.”

“The strength of our ‘Blueprint for Change’ is that it does not try to offer a singular simplistic solution to these complex problems. Instead it recognises that if we are truly going to change the record we need to tackle the issue on many fronts, in a co-ordinated and united way.”

“We can be the generation to change the record, but it will require concerted effort from all levels of government, driven by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led solutions and community support. An evidence based approach is in all of our interests – smarter solutions will mean safer communities,” said Dr Huggins.

The Change the Record Coalition believes that it is vital that governments work through COAG to urgently establish a national, holistic and whole-of-government strategy to address imprisonment and violence rates, and set national justice targets to drive co-ordinated action across the country.

The CTR Coalition also calls for immediate safeguard measures to prevent any further tragic deaths in custody including funding of custody notification systems, or similar services.

“For these services to be effective they need to be operated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled organisations”.

“We also need a commitment to independent investigations of police-related deaths,” Dr Huggins said.

About Us – Change the Record The ‘Change the Record’ (CTR) Coalition is a group of leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, community and human rights organisations working collaboratively to address the disproportionate rates of incarceration and violence experienced by Indigenous Australians.

The CTR Coalition has identified two goals:

  • Close the gap in rates of imprisonment by 2040; and
  •  Cut the disproportionate rates of violence to at least close the gap by 2040 with priority strategies for women and children.

The CTR Coalition is calling for greater investment in early intervention, prevention and diversion strategies. These are smarter solutions that increase safety; address the root causes of violence against women, cut reoffending and imprisonment rates, and build stronger and safer communities. For more information see:

The CTR Coalition Steering Committee includes:

  •  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner,
  •  ANTaR
  •  Amnesty International
  •  Australian Council of Social Service
  • Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic)
  •  First Peoples Disability Network (Australia)
  •  Human Rights Law Centre
  • Law Council of Australia
  •  National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations
  •  National Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Legal Services
  •  National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples
  • National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum
  •  Oxfam Australia
  •  Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care
  •  Sisters Inside
  •  Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Andrew Jackomos


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