The NT Government must rein in excessive police lock up powers to avoid future deaths in custody

The NT Government must rein in excessive police lock up powers to avoid future deaths in custody

The Northern Territory police’s excessive lock up powers are being used unfairly and disproportionately against Aboriginal people, which in turn increases the risk of deaths in custody, the Human Rights Law Centre has told an expert panel undertaking a review of the Northern Territory’s alcohol laws.

Shahleena Musk, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said punitive approaches to public drinking, including giving police unprecedented powers to lock people up who have not committed offences, had added to a culture of mass imprisonment.

“The Northern Territory locks people up at a rate like no other state or territory in Australia, and around 84 percent of those it imprisons are Aboriginal. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody told Governments 26 years ago that they needed to stop locking Aboriginal people up at such high rates to reduce deaths in custody. The NT Government should be urgently finding ways to reduce Aboriginal peoples’ contact with the criminal justice system,” said Ms Musk.

The HRLC welcomed the NT Government’s moves to commission the independent expert panel to review alcohol laws and policies in the Northern Territory and to introduce a bill to repeal harmful alcohol protection orders and alcohol mandatory treatment laws. However, Ms Musk said it needed to do more.

“If the Government is serious about reducing the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, it must rein in other excessive police lock-up powers, including abolishing the NT’s draconian paperless arrest powers,” said Ms Musk.

The so-called paperless arrest powers allow police to arrest people on the belief that they may commit trivial offences such as undue noise, singing an obscene song or abandoning a refrigerator. The High Court limited the scope of the laws but they are still in operation.

Despite Aboriginal people making up only 30 percent of the NT population, last year at least 70 percent of people that police detained and released with an infringement notice under paperless arrest laws were Aboriginal.

The disproportionate impact is even worse under the NT’s excessive protective custody laws, which allow police to lock someone up if they are drunk in a public place where police think they are likely to commit any offence however trivial, or “cause substantial annoyance” to people. In 2016, around 90 percent of people locked up by police under protective custody powers were Aboriginal.

The HRLC’s submission to the expert panel called for paperless arrest laws to be abolished and for overly-broad protective custody powers to be reined in.

The HRLC’s submission calls on the NT Government to turn away from short-sighted criminal responses to public drinking and drunkenness towards health-focused evidence-based responses.

“Alcohol misuse is a problem for many towns and communities across the Northern Territory. Individual alcohol misuse is best tackled for what it is – a health problem, requiring holistic and culturally appropriate health responses. Laws that unfairly criminalise Aboriginal people for drinking don’t help,” said Ms Musk.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s full submission can be found here.

For interviews please contact:

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519