Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody: a national shame set to worsen

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody: a national shame set to worsen

Australian governments must put in place life-saving Custody Notification Services in every state and territory to address one of the most significant human rights issues in Australia – the preventable deaths in custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Guardian Australia today revealed that 147 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody in the past decade and 407 have died since the end of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991.

Shahleena Musk, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that this shameful number will continue to rise whilst Australian governments fail to bring in life-saving measures like a Custody Notification Service.

“We know that the lives and safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can be placed at risk in police custody. One call to an Aboriginal led service could change that. Twenty seven years ago the Royal Commission recommended that. Twenty seven years later we’re still faced with politicians dragging their feet while people continue to die,” said Ms Musk.

Custody notification systems require police to contact an Aboriginal Legal Service whenever an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is taken into police custody – a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Custody Notification Services ensure a person is checked for both legal and welfare needs. To date, only NSW has properly implemented this service.

Six months ago, the Australian Law Reform Commission also confirmed this as a key recommendation in addition to 35 comprehensive reforms to address the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including to:

  • abolish mandatory sentencing;
  • stop imprisoning people for unpaid fines;
  • fix bail and sentencing laws so that a person’s cultural experience can be taken into account; and
  • increase access to culturally appropriate community based alternatives.

Ms Musk said that these recommendations and in particular the call for a fully funded and legislated custody notification services should be actioned immediately.

"There is no room for mandatory sentencing in a modern and fair justice system. Every single government in Australia can today choose to cut the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being forced into prison by wiping these unfair laws from their statute books," said Ms Musk.

"Four years ago, Ms Dhu, a young Yamatji woman, died in police custody because she couldn’t pay some fines. Today, the WA Government continues to put peoples’ lives at risk by using prisons and police watch houses to further punish and lock up vulnerable people. Nobody should be locked up simply because they are poor," said Ms Musk.

For interviews call:

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