April marks 25 years since a royal commission presented a formula to prevent Aboriginal deaths in police custody. But how much has changed?
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
13 Apr 2016 - 8:43 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2016 - 8:43 PM

"More punitive responses to law and order" since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody finished in 1991 work against its recommendations to decrease deaths behind bars, says UNSW Criminology Professor Chris Cunneen.

“Leading up to the royal commission…there’d been a whole range of reforms in the criminal justice system and governments were talking generally about the need to reduce levels of imprisonment,” Mr Cunneen told The Point.

But by the late 1980s, early 1990s, that changed, he says.

“We moved into a period of two-and-a-half decades now of much more punitive responses to law and order, and that really went against the basic thrust of what the Royal Commission was on about.”

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In 1987, then prime minister Bob Hawke made history by announcing the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The announcement was spurred largely by a strong political campaign led by Aboriginal activists following a series of Indigenous deaths in police custody.

After examining 99 deaths over a decade, the commission delivered its findings including 339 recommendations.

The royal commission's key directives were to keep people out of jail wherever possible. But there have been 365 Indigenous deaths in prison and police custody from the time 1989 to 2013.

Mick Dodson, who was counsel assisting during the inquiry, told The Point "the formula’s there to stop it. I don’t know if the political will is".

“Almost every death that occurred in custody after the Royal Commission recommendations, invoked the non-implementation of at least one recommendation.

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"[It's] bordering on desperation or despair that it’s still happening."

He says he has a clear directive for policy makers: “The recommendations of the Royal Commission are still relevant. Implement them.

Programs in some states have taken on board recommendations of the inquiry, such as the Custody Notification Service.

It requires NSW and the ACT police to contact the Aboriginal Legal Service when an Indigenous person is arrested.

There have been no Aboriginal deaths in custody in NSW since its implementation in 2007.

The service has just received federal government funding until 2019, but its long-term financing is unclear.

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Professor Cunneen says funding insecurity is a common issue for community-driven programs.

“The problem is that they’re inadequately resourced or they’re not respected by governments,” he says.

He says that reflects a move away from the royal commission recommendation that the government commit to Indigenous self-determination. 

“It was a fundamental principle of the Royal Commission that all the changes needed to occur in the context and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination.”