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Labor ramps up pressure on government to respond to ‘national crisis’ of Indigenous deaths in custody

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Labor says it will invest almost $80 million to combat the ongoing “national crisis” of Indigenous deaths in custody. 

The pledge coincides with the 30th anniversary of the landmark report handed down following the Royal Commission into Indigenous deaths in custody.  

Labor’s Indigenous Australians spokesperson Linda Burney said their plan would work to tackle the root causes of crime and recidivism and to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates.

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“It is no longer good enough just to be tough on crime,” Ms Burney said.

“We need to be smart and effective on it too. We need to be tough on the causes of crime – the socio-economic drivers of disadvantage.”   

Since the Royal Commission, the number of First Nations people as a proportion of the imprisoned population has doubled from 14 per cent to 30 per cent.

To combat these concerns, Labor’s plan would include $79 million to expand justice reinvestment programs such as rehabilitation services, frontline domestic violence support and school retention initiatives. 

The measures would boost funding for up to 30 communities to support existing frontline services from 2023, with the aim to prevent the risk of people falling into the justice system.  

Ms Burney said the states and territories would contribute up to half of the cost – while an independent national justice reinvestment unit would be established to evaluate programs.   

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“If we want to reduce deaths in custody, we need to reduce incarceration rates,” she said.

Labor’s plan is also underpinned by the belief that spending more is worthwhile because reducing prisoner numbers would help reduce costs in the justice system. 

In 2017, an evaluation by KPMG of the community-led Maranguka Project showed the justice reinvestment program had delivered a saving of $3 million to the far western New South Wales town of Bourke.  

Labor’s plan would invest $13.5 million to support coronial inquests into deaths in custody to ensure they are adequately resourced and inclusive of First Nations voices.

It would establish real-time reporting of First Nations deaths in custody at a national level, including having all deaths made public within 24 hours of occurring.     

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt said the Royal Commission’s finding that “too many Aboriginal people are in custody too often” remained a fundamental issue of concern. 

“Every death in custody is a tragedy,” he said. 

“The impact of these deaths is extensive, not just for the families and communities of those who have died, but also for our nation more broadly. 

“There is still work to be done by all governments, working in partnership with Indigenous Australians to address the drivers that lead to Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system.” 

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Under a new Closing the Gap plan released last year, justice targets were included for the first time aimed at reducing rates of Indigenous incarceration. 

Mr Wyatt said the fact First Nations people were “severely over-represented” in adult and youth justice systems shouldn’t be “accepted” in a country like Australia. 

He announced on Wednesday the federal government would spend $2.4 million to set up a new custody notification service in South Australia. 

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday called on the Australian government to commit to fully implementing all of the Royal Commission’s recommendations. 

“Three decades since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, First Nations people in Australia are still unacceptably being incarcerated and dying in prison,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. 

Since the 1991 report, it’s estimated there’s been more than 470 Indigenous people who have died in custody.

This has included five deaths of Indigenous Australians recorded since the beginning of March this year.

“Given the recent spate of Indigenous deaths in custody, it’s clear that this is a national crisis,” Ms Pearson said. 

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