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Issue #1729      May 4, 2016

Royal Commission 25 years on

Repeal the laws

Kumanjayi Langdon was a sick middle-aged man. He did not deserve to die behind bars.

That was the opinion of Northern Territory Coroner Greg Cavanagh, who investigated the 59-year-old Aboriginal man’s death and called for the repeal of laws that put him there.

Langdon died last year in a concrete police cell surrounded by strangers, three hours after police picked him up for drinking in a park.

Police had enacted their right to “paperless arrest” – a NT law that allows officers to jail anyone they suspect could be involved in a crime with no warrant and no charge for four hours.

Many offences picked up by the law, like public drinking or swearing, could be dealt with by on-the-spot fines.

339 recommendations

Last Friday marked 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody tabled its 339 recommendations – among them that imprisonment should be used as a last resort.

Since then, the number of Indigenous prisoners behind bars has doubled and their risk of being put there is 13 times higher than other Australians.

The Royal Commission ran for four years and investigated 99 Indigenous deaths in custody that occurred over a 10-year period.

Most of the 339 recommendations have never been implemented.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said it was important to recognise the progress that had been made since 1991.

“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,” he said.

However, international human rights organisation Amnesty International released a statement claiming Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion had “glossed over the failures of successive governments to reduce Indigenous deaths in custody and soaring Indigenous incarceration rates”.

Amnesty Indigenous rights campaigner Julian Cleary said successive governments had “sat on their hands for an entire generation” while the problem escalated.

“The inaccuracies in the minister’s statement continue the dodging of responsibility we have seen for 25 long years since the Royal Commission,” he said.

Amnesty called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to acknowledge that the system was broken and agree to a national justice target as part of the annual Closing the Gap report to Parliament, something which Labor and the Greens support.

Reconciliation Australia (RA) believes the nation faces an even deeper crisis than it did in 1991, and is calling for justice reinvestment.

Huge savings

A 1% decrease in the incarceration rate could free up $1.7 billion to be spent on initiatives to keep people out of jail, RA says.

Last year Coroner Cavanagh called for the scrapping of “paperless arrest” laws after Langdon’s death on the basis they were “irreconcilable” with the Royal Commission’s findings.

However, the NT government knocked back that call and was later vindicated by a High Court decision that the laws did not defy the Constitution.

Last week, the Australian Bar Association, which represents barristers, called for governments to scrap mandatory sentencing for minor crimes like theft, saying the rules disproportionately affected Indigenous people.

Ugly figures in incarceration

Behind bars:

  • Indigenous prisoners make up 27% of the national prison population.
  • Indigenous people only make up about 3% of overall population.
  • Indigenous incarceration rate has doubled from 14% at time of Royal Commission.
  • Indigenous people are 13 times more likely to go to prison than other Australians.
  • Between 2000 and 2010, the Indigenous imprison rate increased 51.5%, while the non-Indigenous rate increased by 3.1%.
  • In the Northern Territory, about 85% of prisoners are Indigenous.

Koori Mail

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