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.
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.