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Federal Government not keeping track of Indigenous deaths in custody

Rachael Knowles -

The Federal Government has kept no consolidated records on how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since 2019, a Senate Estimates hearing has revealed.

The hearing on Friday revealed the Commonwealth Government does not keep consolidated data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody.

Details of the Government's policies on Indigenous deaths in custody were prompted by questions from Labor Senators Pat Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy.

National Indigenous Australian Agency (NIAA) officials said the Government's data was informed by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC). However, the last report from the AIC was completed in 2019 and recorded 455 Aboriginal people had died in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission.

This number has increased since 2019, with four Aboriginal people losing their lives in custody in this month alone. The NIAA was unable to clarify the exact number of Aboriginal people who have died in custody, however, it is currently believed to be near the 500 mark.

The NIAA also noted that alongside AIC data, the Government also relies upon media reports for data on deaths in custody.

During the hearing, NIAA officials also confirmed that the Government has not responded to the Australian Law Reform Commission's (ALRC) Pathways to Justice report which tabled the findings of an Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in March 2018.

The NIAA told NIT that through the National Deaths in Custody Program, the AIC monitors deaths in prison, police custody and youth detention. The program was established in response to a recommendation of the 1991 Royal Commission and tables an annual report.

"The data is collated from two main sources: data provided by State and Territory police services and corrections departments; and coronial records accessed through the National Coronial Information System," said an NIAA spokesperson.

"The AIC reports are the authoritative sources of deaths in custody data that NIAA relies upon."

The spokesperson also said an independent review found that the Government had "fully or mostly" implemented 91 per cent of the recommendations of the Royal Commission "for which it had responsibility".

"Noting the time that has passed since recommendations were made through the Royal Commission, the Australian Government is committed to finding effective solutions to the contemporary drivers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' disproportionate contact with the justice system," the spokesperson said.

The NIAA said this will include consideration of the ALRC's Pathway to Justice report recommendations.

During the Senate Estimates hearing both Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy questioned Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker, who defended the Government saying it was a State and Territory responsibility to keep such data. She added that all lives lost in custody matter to Government.

In a press conference after the hearing, Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy addressed the issues raised, with Dodson noting that the nation is heading to another Royal Commission into deaths in custody â€" despite not taking on board the recommendations of the last.

"We've got to the chronic stage now where, instead of learning from the Royal Commission and its recommendations 30 years ago, we're standing on the brink potentially of another Royal Commission to inquire into the same sorts of things, the underlying issues that give rise to custodies and the reasons for this," Senator Dodson said.

"In recent months, a lady died from a from a hanging point, which was recommended 30 years ago to be removed from these cells and where the danger might arise. People are still being ... jailed for fine defaults, people are being jailed for drunkenness ... the fundamentals have just not been taken seriously.

"And certainly, the Federal Government is not taking a leadership role where it should be taking a leadership role."

Senator McCarthy echoed her colleague's remarks.

"What you witnessed today in the Estimates room, everyone keeps passing the buck. As Senator Dodson says, every agency he's asked, they've shrugged their shoulders and they've tossed the ball over to somebody else," she said.

"No one is taking responsibility. And that is the fundamental problem here with this Government, that no one is taking responsibility for this massive problem that we have in our country and the First Nations people dying unnecessarily."

Responding to Senator Stoker's comments regarding all lives in custody, Dodson relayed that "anyone who dies in custody matters".

"We're talking about the First Nations people who are being incarcerated at a far higher rate," he said.

"At the time of the Royal Commission ... about 14 per cent of the population in prison were Aboriginal people. Now we're up to 30 per cent. So, the incarceration rates have been blown out to glory compared to only three per cent of the population."

By Rachael Knowles

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