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Thursday, 5 May 1994
Page: 351

Senator CHAMARETTE (4.14 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

The report shows improvements in performance in a number of key indicators, but it is also a damning indictment of the failure of all governments to fulfil recommendations pertaining to reducing levels of custody. The report indicates that the number of deaths in all forms of custody in 1992 was the lowest since 1984, and that is an achievement which should not go unnoticed. It is, after all, the very aim and purpose of the recommendations that people who, for whatever reason, are in custody should not be at risk of their lives, either by their own hand or through other means.

  The report also shows that in 1992 no Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died in police lockups. I think this should be commended, and I also think the work of the Aboriginal visitors scheme should be noted in regard to this. I believe that both the police in their attempts to improve on their record and the Aboriginal people themselves in the way they have cooperated deserve recognition for that work.

  Our observations, particularly in Western Australia, indicate that the greatest achievements in the reform process started by the royal commission have been in the police lockups. Indeed, in Western Australia no Aboriginal or islander person has died in a police lockup for over 3 1/2 years. It would be unnecessary to say that no person should ever die in a police lockup but, considering the history of particularly Aboriginal deaths in custody in WA, that figure of 3 1/2 years indicates major improvements.

  Sadly, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying in all forms of custody is still out of proportion to their place in the overall population of this country. While making up only 1.1 per cent of the adult population, they were still eight per cent of the 1992 custodial deaths. Likewise, the report shows that, while the imprisonment rate of the general population stood at 99 per 100,000 in 1992, the figure for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 1,481 per 100,000. This is the figure which, above all else, needs to be reduced if we are to make significant and permanent progress on the rate of deaths in custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

  This level of overrepresentation is not uniform across the states. Sadly, my own state of Western Australia has the highest level of overrepresentation, at 22.7 times that of non-Aboriginal people. The report shows some good news on the rate at which people are being taken into police custody. The rate has fallen from 183 per 100,000 in 1988 to 152 per 100,000 in 1992. Again, the fall is not consistent across the states, but the rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while it fell, did so from 3,539 per 100,000 in 1988 to 2,801 per 100,000 in 1992.

  Furthermore, this drop of 21 per cent, while it is impressive, was accompanied by a rise in the proportion of Aboriginal people as against non-Aboriginal people being taken into police custody, particularly in New South Wales, WA and the Northern Territory. The message here is that policy changes seem to be resulting in fewer people being taken into custody but that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not benefiting as much from the policy changes as are others. The overrepresentation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being taken into custody stood at 26.2 times, but for my own state of WA it was an alarming 51.9 per cent.

  The report, as I said earlier, indicates some progress, and if the 1992 results for deaths in custody are repeated and the improvement maintained then we will be on the right track. However, we are still seeing the enormous disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and their contact with the criminal justice system.

  The royal commission made it perfectly plain that reducing imprisonment rates is a fundamental requirement. It sounds so obvious as to not be worth repeating, but it seems that progress is slow in this area, particularly in WA. I can only call on all governments to move towards a full implementation of the royal commission recommendations—not next year, not the years after, but now. It is a matter of life and death.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  Consideration resumed.