The report recommended more than 300 reforms — few of which have been implemented.
And a prominent Indigenous leader says the situation has worsened since then.
A royal commission was established in 1987 to investigate Indigenous deaths in state and territory prisons.
The commission investigated all deaths in custody between January 1980 and May 1989 and, in its final report, tabled in April 1991, made 339 recommendations.
They included calls for the arrest of people only when there was no other way to deal with a problem and for imprisonment to be only a last resort.
The last recommendation called for starting a formal process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
That led to the creation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.
Pat Dodson, Labor’s incoming senator for Western Australia, is a former chairman.
And Mr Dodson has called on federal parliament to do more to reduce the rates of Indigenous incarceration, saying the rates of imprisonment have doubled since 1991.
“Indigenous peoples are being imprisoned at a rate that is a staggering 13 times higher than that of non-Indigenous people, and, unfortunately, that rate of people appears to be accelerating. In some states, like my own of Western Australia, these rates are even higher.”
Mr Dodson says, since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody handed down its report, 750 people have died in prison.
One in five was Indigenous.
Rights group Amnesty International’s Julian Cleary says the issue demands national attention.
“Basically, we’ve had an entire generation of failure to heed the recommendations of the royal commission that Pat Dodson spoke about, so it is of utmost urgency that we actually do something about this issue. And it’s actually gotten significantly worse since there was a royal commission into it, so it’s time to act.”
Mr Cleary says the figures are worse for Indigenous children.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children around the country are 24 times more likely to be in jail than any of their counterparts. In Western Australia, for example, that rate rises to 52 times. In Western Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are more likely to be behind bars than African-American kids in the United States, which is notorious for locking up people at an astronomical rate. This issue is one that has been labelled as urgent 25 years ago. The federal parliament released a report in 2011 saying that it was urgent. There’s been a complete lack of action on it, and it’s time for the prime minister to set justice targets to close the gap in Indigenous incarceration rates to sit alongside the other targets.”
The co-chairwoman of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Jackie Huggins, says the issue of Indigenous incarceration is complex.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are going to jail for minor crimes. And when I say minor crimes, it could be something as simple as swearing at police officers or drinking in the wrong places.”
Dr Huggins says non-Indigenous Australians are not detained for such crimes.
“Those sorts of things can also be driving without a licence and disqualification from driving, and, also, very ordinary things, like not paying fines. And when I say ordinary, you wouldn’t expect that they would be the kind of things that people get locked up for. And, of course, couple that with mandatory sentencing, by which you don’t get any warning, you actually go to jail.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda says poverty is a factor in many cases.
“They’re really the result of poverty, and, unless we address the poverty as an underlying issue here, we’re destined to see the prison population grow further. But even saying that, surely, as a country, we can start looking at why do we send people to jail for not paying fines. I’ve had these discussions in WA, and the fine system is actually meant to drive behaviour change. Well, it’s not driving change. It’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money. We’ve got to think of other things to do that. It’s certainly not putting people in jail that’s going to drive that change.”
Mr Gooda questions the need for mandatory sentencing of Indigenous Australians without putting them through the legal system.
“Our justice system works on the basis of every crime as an individual. We have judges and magistrates who go through that, and they have a punishment that fits the crime. And, with mandatory sentencing, we’ve seen it in WA, we’ve seen it in the Northern Territory … three strikes and you’re in. One case in WA was a kid stealing a packet of biscuits. Now in anyone’s world, a packet of biscuits for someone who’s hungry being stolen isn’t a cause to send people to jail. But it certainly is in places like WA.”
Amnesty’s Julian Cleary says the issue needs urgent attention from legislators.
“This is a national shame for us and really should make all Australians really worry for the future of our country. I think what we really need to do is recognise that we need a plan, a national strategy. We actually need concerted attention on these issues. We need to ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children what will work for them.”
Many prominent Indigenous figures and analysts have called for governments to look at what is called justice reinvestment.
Under that approach, money spent on prisons is redirected to community-based initiatives aimed at addressing the underlying causes of crime.
Justin Cleary says it works.
“An approach that has been having incredible success in places like Texas (in the United States) which are famous for locking people up at astronomical rates. They’re now closing prisons there. Their crime rates are one of the lowest rates they’ve had in decades and decades. There’s a model there that the Aboriginal community leadership in the town of Bourke, in New South Wales, is pioneering, a local approach on justice reinvestment. Aboriginal leaders there are crafting solutions that their community faces. Governments need to take this stuff seriously. It should be at the forefront of debate.”