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Labor pledges $90m to reduce Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody

Lorena Allam and Calla Wahlquist
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Labor says it will allocate more than $90m over four years for justice reforms to reduce the incarceration of Aboriginal people and the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody, if it wins government.

On the 30th anniversary of the final report of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, Labor’s Indigenous affairs spokesperson, Linda Burney, said federal leadership on justice reinvestment is needed to tackle the root causes of crime and recidivism.

Labor says it would launch a national justice reinvestment program with funding for more than 30 communities to design programs focused on rehabilitation, family and domestic violence and school retention, with the aim of diverting those at risk away from the justice system.

Related: ‘I want to break that cycle’: the relatives still fighting for justice over deaths in custody

The responsibility would be shared equally with state and territory governments, Burney said, with a national Indigenous justice reinvestment unit set up to support and monitor their progress.

“State and territory governments want to do something about the underlying causes that are driving the incarceration rate and justice reinvestment does that,” Burney said.

In 2017, the Aboriginal community-led Maranguka justice reinvestment program delivered a saving of almost $3m to the far-western New South Wales town of Bourke, a KMPG report found.

KPMG calculated the savings based on the reduced number of police hours taken up with responding to domestic violence incidents and other serious offences, the reduced daily cost of imprisonment, as well as fewer bail breaches, fines and other penalties in the region. It found a 42% reduction in days spent in custody for adults, a 38% reduction in charges for juveniles, a 23% reduction in police-recorded incidences of domestic violence and a 31% increase in year 12 student retention rates.

Labor has also committed just over $13m to ensuring coronial inquests are comprehensive, adequately resourced and inclusive of the voices of families and communities.

It has promised standalone funding for Aboriginal legal services to support and represent families at inquest. The legal services do not currently receive funding for this work and it is seen as essential but difficult to manage with limited resources. The NSW-ACT ALS is representing at least nine families in coronial inquests at the moment.

Burney said Labor wants to establish real-time national monitoring of deaths in custody, including making sure that all deaths are made public within 24 hours of occurring.

“There is an absolute role for the federal government to provide leadership. Labor has recognised this. This package has not been pulled out of thin air. We have thought about this, we’ve consulted on it. We’ve really been very careful in structuring it,” Burney said.

Hawke government Aboriginal affairs minister Robert Tickner, who presented the royal commission report to parliament in 1991, said it was “to our great shame that 30 years later, we have progressed so little”.

Tickner said the recommendation that imprisonment should only occur as a last resort was adopted by every state and territory – and yet Indigenous imprisonment rates have continued to rise.

“It angers and pains me deeply that governments around the country have failed to progress the most fundamental recommendation of the royal commission,” he said.

“I believe this is one area of public policy where both Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese should be working together, setting party politics aside and getting all our state and territory governments in the tent with Aboriginal leaders at their side to progress reforms.”

On Wednesday, the minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said the federal government would contribute $2.4m over three years to establish a mandatory custody notification scheme in South Australia and increase funding of the Victorian and NT schemes by $455,000 and $269,423 respectively.

Custody notification services are a 24/7 phone line that police must call when an Aboriginal person is brought into custody, operated by Aboriginal legal service lawyers who are able to perform welfare and health checks and offer advice.

The federal government promised to fund custody notification systems in all jurisdictions in 2017, some 26 years after the recommendation was made by the royal commission.

“Custody notification services delivered by Aboriginal legal services are a proven way to reduce the risk of a death occurring in custody,” Wyatt said.

Related: Aboriginal-led justice project saves rural town almost $3m

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, June Oscar, said Australia must stop the “mass incarceration” of Indigenous people or deaths in custody would continue.

“For 30 years we have urged Australian governments to implement all the recommendations made by the royal commission,” Oscar said. “We have long held the solutions, and countless inquires and reports have given us the way forward. But time and again we fail to effectively implement them, and as a result, we continue to see First Nations men, women and children dying in our so-called justice system.

“The mass incarceration of First Nations Australians is driven by systemic and structural problems within the justice system and beyond it. Until this changes, until we see diversionary programs and justice reinvestment replacing mass incarceration, the grave injustice of Indigenous deaths in custody will continue.

“I know there is genuine desire for change across the justice system. But this change requires courageous leadership from governments to drive systems reform. It is time governments entered into genuine, trusting and just partnerships with our peoples to finally address and overcome this crisis.”