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Tuesday, 21 March 2023
Page: 910

Senator DODSON (Western Australia) (16:31): Any death in custody should concern us all. It's clear that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples dying in custody is a sad matter for families and reminds governments that things need to change. I was a commissioner of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which reported more than 30 years ago. More than 500 Aboriginal people have died in custody since that time. That is a statistic that I know unsettles us all. As the royal commission found after its exhaustive four years of inquiry, it's not that the death rates of Aboriginal people are higher than that of non-Aboriginal people in custody; it's the rate at which they are taken into custody that leaves Aboriginal people not only so grossly overrepresented in our prison populations but vulnerable to deaths in custody.

What's the root cause of this dreadful statistic? There are simply too many Aboriginal people being locked up. Imprisonment should be the measure of last resort, as the royal commission said. The Productivity Commission reported last year that First Nations people are 13.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians. First Nations people make up only 3.8 per cent of the Australian population but represent 32 per cent of the adult prison population. These figures are completely unacceptable.

There have been dreadful examples of neglect and abuse in our state and territory criminal justice systems, in lock-ups and prisons and in custody more generally. It's long been my position that those who have responsibility for care and supervision of people in custody must be held to account. I was particularly disturbed by the findings earlier this year by the Victorian coroner, who inquired into the horrific death of the lady who died in spite of having sought help from custodial officers more than 30 times. I do note that the coroner found that, if all the recommendations of the royal commission had been implemented, her death would have likely been avoided.

But I reject the premise of this matter of public importance—that the government of which I'm a part is unwilling to take action. We are serious about reducing the number of First Nations people going to jails. That's why in October's budget last year we committed $99 million to fund First Nations justice packages. Of that money, $81.5 million will be invested in up to 30 community-led justice reinvestment programs across the country. We've already identified two priority sites for early intervention: Alice Springs and Halls Creek.

We want to build on the success of initiatives like in Bourke, New South Wales. There the Aboriginal community has worked with governments and service providers with great success to support local initiatives. That's what's going to have to happen across the country if we're going to meet the justice targets under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap for both adults and youth. Of course, this is not the only approach required if we are to make progress.

In our federal system, many of the levers of change sit with states and territories. They are the ones with control of the police, the prisons and the health care that is provided within them. National leadership is critical. The previous government was intent on abdicating responsibility back to states and territories. This government will not shirk its duties. This government has reinstated the Standing Council of Attorneys-General and made Indigenous justice a standing agenda item. It's working with states and territories to develop a proposal to raise the minimum age for criminal responsibility. It's funding, for the first time, legal representation for families at coronial inquests. And it's advancing real-time reporting of deaths in custody to ensure better accountability across the country. We need to keep First Nations people out of jails and out of lock-ups. That's our goal, and we're determined to achieve it.