The brutal images that have defined 2016 for Indigenous Australia

The brutal images that have defined 2016 for Indigenous Australia

This piece was first published by The Sydney Morning Herald

Brutal images of Aboriginal women and children being mistreated in custody are a defining feature of 2016. From Dylan Voller and the young detainees of Don Dale to Ms Dhu, Australians have been forced to reckon with the cruel reality of Australia's over-imprisonment crisis.

We can no longer plead ignorance when it comes to the risks associated with locking people up. Hooded and shackled, hand-cuffed and hosed-down, dismissed or dragged lifeless across the floor, Australians cannot pretend that this is the unpalatable stuff of places far away. 

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody – a nationwide inquiry that was sparked by the brutal police bashing and subsequent death of John Pat.

The royal commission provided Australia with recommendations and a road map for reducing Aboriginal peoples' over-imprisonment and the attendant risks of mistreatment and deaths in custody.

But Aboriginal peoples' imprisonment rates are today seven times higher than they were at the time of the inquiry. In the last year alone, we've seen the imprisonment of Aboriginal people rise by the hundreds.

All Australian states and territories have untenable over-imprisonment rates. No jurisdiction has fully implemented the recommendations of the royal commission. Indeed, no jurisdiction has implemented recommendation No.1: to create an oversight mechanism to monitor implementation.

It is no coincidence that the cases of Dylan Voller and Ms Dhu occurred in the Northern Territory and Western Australia: the two jurisdictions that continue to have the highest Aboriginal over-imprisonment rates in the country.

We only need to look at some of the circumstances of these two cases to understand the very real consequences of punitive, lock-em-up, policies.  

If Ms Dhu had lived in NSW, it's fair to conclude that she would have never been locked up for being unable to pay her fines. NSW has a fair and a flexible fines system: a system that distinguishes between those who will not, and those, like Ms Dhu, who simply cannot pay their fines. As a consequence, nobody has been locked up for being unable to pay their fines for more than a decade.

If Dylan Voller lived in a jurisdiction like the ACT, which has a youth justice system focused on early-intervention and rehabilitation, it's fair to conclude that he could have had access to the types of education and therapeutic programs that help young people address the underlying reasons for their offending and to turn their lives around.

Despite the obvious inequity of this sliding-door reality, government inaction persists.

The Northern Territory government has still not made sweeping changes to its youth justice system, or come out in a show of good faith by committing to implement the Northern Territory royal commission's recommendations.

Likewise, Western Australia's Premier Barnett will not publicly commit to implementing the Coroner's 11 reasonable recommendations, made last week, including stopping locking people up for unpaid fines and implementing a custody notification system.

Custody notification systems require police to contact the Aboriginal Legal Service whenever an Aboriginal person is taken into police custody – a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We know from evidence that they are effective in reducing deaths in custody.

But for them to work, systems must be resourced and protocols must be constantly reviewed before they fail. Before a young Aboriginal woman, like Ms Maher, tragically dies alone in a NSW police cell – as happened less than six months ago.

If we are to heed anything from the shocking cases of Dylan Voller, Ms Dhu and more recently Ms Maher, it is that we should never tolerate governments being callous with liberty.

The reason liberty is a fundamental human right is not just because it is a defining feature of human life – but also because once liberty is removed, there is a greater risk of unchecked abuses. Like exposure to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, or even death. 

As 2016 closes, the looming question for us is how to ensure these tragic cases and the circumstances behind them are not repeated. It is clear that being outraged is not enough. It is clear that royal commissions, inquiries and coronial inquests – without political commitment to proper implementation – are not enough.

According to the Coroner in Ms Dhu's inquest, we need a "seismic shift". A period of active implementation of evidence-based policies, in contrast to the last 25 years. A deep commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having a genuine say in their own lives and the decisions that affect them.

2017 should be the year that we take our first real steps on the path towards this well over-due change in direction.  

Karly Warner is the executive officer at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.
Ruth Barson is the director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.