Section 7: Self-determination and community / Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Section 7: Self-determination and community

Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

In the late 1980s, there was growing concern and outrage across Australia regarding an increase in the number of deaths of Aboriginal people in police and prison custody. People were angry about these deaths becoming commonplace and the inadequate response from police or government.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADC) was announced in 1987, when Aboriginal people were 20 times more likely to die in custody. RCIADC explored the underlying social, cultural, and legal reasons for why these deaths were occurring. In 1991, it handed down its findings on the 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody between 1980 and 1989. The RCIDAC Report revealed that Aboriginal people were more likely to die in custody because they were – and still are – overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Of the 99 deaths it investigated, 43 were of people who had been separated from their families as children, highlighting intergenerational trauma.

The RCIADC report made 339 recommendations, many related to reducing social disadvantage and promoting Aboriginal self-determination. It also recommended only arresting people as a last resort (The Royal Commission found that many people who died did not need to be in custody at all), following all procedures accurately and seeking medical attention immediately if needed.

The report recommended beginning a process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, which led to the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, in 2001.

Recent studies show that Aboriginal deaths in custody are still occurring at a higher rate than non-Aboriginal people. In 2018, the Australian Institute of Criminology’s Deaths in Custody Report found that despite making up only 3.3% of the Australian population, Aboriginal people made up 18% of prison custody deaths. It also found that Aboriginal people are six times more likely to die in police custody than the non-Aboriginal population.