Shame over Aboriginal deaths in custody haunts Australia 30 years after landmark report

MELBOURNE (REUTERS) – Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia and high incarceration rates came under a harsh spotlight from indigenous groups and policymakers on Thursday (April 15) as they marked the 30th anniversary of a report on an issue that has become a source of national shame.

Aboriginal people make up about 3 per cent of Australia’s population, but around 29 per cent of its prison population, up from 14 per cent when the Royal Commission report came out in 1991.

In the last month alone there were at least five custodial deaths, and outrage over the mounting toll sparked protests in Australia’s major cities at the weekend.

In all, more than 470 Aboriginal people have died while in custody since the report was published.

National Native Title Council chief executive Jamie Lowe called the high prison rates a “national crisis”, lamenting the authorities’ failure to act on all the recommendations made by the commission.

“All 339 recommendations must be implemented in full and that takes political will and strong leadership. Australia seems to be missing both,” Mr Lowe said in a statement.

Australia still incarcerates children as young as 10, and a government council is set to decide this year whether to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, in line with global standards.

“The fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are severely overrepresented in adult and youth justice systems, as offenders and as victims, and in upstream systems such as the child protection system is widely acknowledged, but it shouldn’t be accepted in a first world country such as Australia,” said Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt.

“Reducing the number of Indigenous people in contact with the justice system will reduce the number of Indigenous deaths in custody.”

The government of Victoria state said that it was reforming the justice system to abolish crimes including public drunkenness as well as pursuing a treaty to recognise the unique status of Aboriginal Victorians.

“We can do better. We will do better,” it said.

Australia has no treaty with its indigenous people. British settlement of the then-colony was based on the legal concept that land could be acquired by settlement.

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