The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
Looking forward, looking backwards
It is over 15 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody presented its final report.
There is little doubt that the decision of the Hawke Government to establish the Commission was greatly influenced by Aboriginal agitation about the number of deaths in custody. And there is no doubt that, whatever the cause of that decision, the subsequent decision to expand the number of Commissioners to four times that originally provided for was due to the fact that, within a few months of setting the Commission up, it became apparent that about a hundred deaths would have to be investigated.
I will never ever forget the day when we discovered that the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody was no different to the rate of non-Aboriginal deaths in custody. Until that point in time, it had been generally assumed by most people that the task of the Commission was to consider why the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody was so high. The revelation that the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody was no different to the rate of non-Aboriginal deaths in custody had a resounding impact upon the work that we at the Royal Commission were doing. At the same time, we learnt that, whilst the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody was no higher than non-Aboriginal deaths, the number of Aboriginal people in custody as a proportion of the Aboriginal population overall was far greater than the number of non-Aboriginal people in custody as a proportion of the non-Aboriginal population of Australia. Aboriginal people were 14 or 15 times more likely to be in custody. And so we were compelled to look for answers as to why so many Aboriginal people were in custody.
Before proceeding further, it is necessary to bring those figures up to date. The Royal Commission found that, as at 30 June 1989, ‘there were 15 times as many Aboriginal people in prison than there were non-Aboriginal people’.1 That is, for every 100,000 Aboriginal people making up the general adult population of Australia, 1,464.9 Aboriginal people were in prison as compared to only 97.2 non-Aboriginals per 100,000 non-Aboriginal persons. The annual reports of the Australian Institute of Criminology give the number of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal deaths in prison custody and the proportion of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in prison custody. Accordingly, it is possible to estimate the number of each group in custody from their figures. In 2001, 20.2 per cent of all prisoners were Aboriginal. The figures for the following years are:
It is quite clear that the percentage of Aboriginal people in custody remains unacceptably high. Sixteen years on, this is disheartening and disgraceful.
The consequence of the lack of any meaningful decline in the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal people is that, as a society, we find ourselves asking exactly the same question today as that which the Royal Commission had to face when it first became apparent that the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody was not the real problem, that rather it was the totally disproportionate number of Aboriginal people in custody.