Both the Federal Government and the Opposition have announced funding regarding Indigenous deaths in custody, spurring hope for a multifaceted national response which addresses the impact of the criminal justice system on First Nations people.

Last week the Morrison Government announced an investment of $2.4 million across three years to create a new Custody Notification System (CNS) in South Australia as of July 1 this year.

The Government also announced a funding increase of over $724,000 for the Northern Territory and Victorian services.

The CNS is a 24/7 phone line that is mandatory for police to use when a First Nations person is taken into custody. It provides access to health and welfare checks and access to legal services.

“With contemporary knowledge of police processes and experience in providing crisis support, Custody Notification Services delivered by Aboriginal Legal Services are a proven way to reduce the risk of a death occurring in custody,” said Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt.

“We’re also boosting our support for existing services in the Northern Territory and Victoria to address surge in demand for their services arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Aboriginal Legal Services that provided funding include the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) which will receive an extra $455,000, and the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) which will be provided an additional $269,423.

“NAAJA helps reduce anxiety and relieve the stress of people taken into custody and build rapport to refer people to appropriate supports and address underlying issues,” Minister Wyatt said.

Last Thursday, the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Federal Labor Party announced a $92.5 million package focusing on justice reinvestment, legal services, the restructuring of coronial inquest processes and the collation of real-time deaths in custody data.

The announcements were welcomed by the Law Council of Australia, with the hope that the Government would take leadership in addressing the overrepresentation of First Nations peoples in custody.

“While these fresh announcements are certainly welcome, what the nation urgently requires is a comprehensive national response to address the vastly disproportionate imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” said Law Council President Dr Jacoba Brasch QC.

“We need a multifaceted government response supported by adequate funding. The ALRC’s [Australian Law Reform Commission] Pathways to Justice Report provides such a framework.

“Until there is fulsome, considered, coordinated, and an appropriately resourced response to that report we cannot say we’ve seen the commitment required to change the current trajectory.”

Dr Brasch described the rate of First Nations peoples in custody 30 years after the Royal Commission as a “national shame”.

“The Law Council has long called for a focus on justice reinvestment, increased legal assistance funding, adoption of effective Closing the Gap targets, early intervention and prevention strategies, and the adoption of community-led culturally appropriate services for Indigenous people,” she said.

“We need new investment in new programs to divert young people and children from custody.

“An effective crime preventative approach must be driven by policy frameworks that address the underlying reasons for why Indigenous people come into contact with the criminal justice system.”

Dr Brasch said any policy should address the need for increased access to services focused on mental heath, housing, family support, youth engagement and disability.

“Justice reinvestment approaches which bring these services together in key locations should be prioritised,” she said.

By Rachael Knowles