A message from Michelle Trudgett, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, Strategy and Consultation:
There has been enormous national and international coverage of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign in recent weeks. The BLM movement began in 2013 in response to the acquittal of a police officer who was charged with the death of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, an African American man. The movement soon stretched to Australia with several marches held over the last few years – including the recent mass protests across Australia. Parallels between the BLM cases in the United States and Australia, are at the heart of the local protests demonstrating against police brutality towards people of colour – namely Indigenous people in the Australian context.
The Australian Law Reform Commission1 recently retraced Australia’s own tragic history in this area. It described a long legacy of disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rates, unnecessary Indigenous deaths in custody, and a litany of legal and justice system discriminations against Indigenous Australians, including poor relations with and treatment by Australian police.
In 1991, there was a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody2 (RCIADIC). The RCIADIC report provided 339 recommendations outlining methods to eradicate Indigenous deaths in custody, lower the incarceration rates, and redress inherent biases in the justice system. Almost 30 years later, as shown by a recent review by Deloitte’s Access Economics3, these recommendations are yet to be fully implemented.
In response to this review, a group of 33 academic experts across 12 academic institutions issued a joint statement through the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research4. They argued that even where implementation progress had been made, the impact of actions to date has been fundamentally ineffective.
This failure to effect change was demonstrated in 2018, when the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) reported that the Royal Commission’s conclusion 25 years earlier ‘….that Indigenous people…were significantly more likely to be arrested and imprisoned…. remains true today.’5 This was reinforced again earlier this year, when the AIC released the latest statistics6 on deaths in custody. These figures showing that overall there has not been improvement in the rate of Indigenous deaths in custody since 1989. That is, despite some specific advances, the overall death rate has stubbornly persisted since the time of the RCIADIC.
There is some debate about the conclusive figure of Australian deaths in custody to date, however it is reported that there has now been up to 437 Indigenous deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission report7 . After conducting a review of 134 Indigenous deaths in custody, an academic from University of Technology Sydney and former Fulbright Scholar at Harvard Law School, Alison Whittaker raised her concern about a lack of rigour and transparency in those systems which probe Indigenous deaths in custody. She suggests that this obstructs systemic truth finding and that even when circumstances linked to an individual Indigenous death in custody warrants extensive legal and/or coronial investigation, to date there is trend that no convictions are laid8 .
Back in 1991, RCIDIC recommendations also sought to address the ways in which Police work with Indigenous communities and alternatives to criminalising Indigenous young people. In a joint statement a group of academic experts, through the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, explained that supporting Indigenous-led solutions to community problems and social determinants would be a more constructive approach to deal with the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody. Western Sydney University supports any such efforts to advance Indigenous self-determination and recognises the urgent need to do so.
Western Sydney University also extends its support to the BLM campaign. Our sincerest condolences are extended to the families and friends of the many Indigenous people who have died whilst in custody. We are a University that deeply values and respects the cultural diversity of our students and staff. Through the sharing of culture, stories and knowledge we continue to learn from one another. As an academic community, we also seek to work with Indigenous people and others to act to tackle the persistent tragedy of Indigenous deaths in custody, the scourge of Indigenous incarceration, and the many biases within the justice and legal systems.
At Western Sydney University, Indigenous staff, students and elders are valued and respected members of our community. We thank them for their ongoing contributions and request that in these challenging times, and beyond, we come together in solidarity and demonstrate an ongoing commitment to Indigenous Australians and other people of colour who are subjected to racism. It is important to acknowledge that conversations relating to Indigenous deaths in custody can cause serious emotional distress and subsequently impact the health and wellbeing of our Indigenous staff and students. It is therefore requested that we approach the issue with utmost care and consideration. As an institution we actively practice zero tolerance of racism and endeavour to ensure that all staff and students are well informed about human rights including the BLM initiative.
1 Australian Law Reform Commission. (2017). Pathways to Justice-an Inquiry Into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Australian Law Reform Commission.
3 Economics, D. A. (2018). Review of the implementation of the Recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
4 Jordan, K., Anthony, T., Walsh, T., & Markham, F. (2018). Joint response to the Deloitte Review of the implementation of the Recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
5 Gannoni, A., & Bricknell, S. (2019). Indigenous Deaths in Custody: 25 Years Since the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Australian Institute of Criminology.
6 Doherty L & Bricknell S 2020. Deaths in custody in Australia 2017-18. Statistical Report no. 21. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. https://aic.gov.au/publications/sr/sr21
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