The death of several Australian Aborigines who have died in prison or police custody around the country recently has underscored the disproportionately high percentage of Aborigines among the country’s incarcerated – a result in part of overcrowded housing and low education rates that go hand in hand with violence and petty crime. But discrimination is also to blame, say critics.
The picture is especially bleak for young indigenous people, who are 28 times more likely to end up in juvenile detention according to the latest official figures. In one notorious case last November, police charged a 12-year-old boy in Western Australia with receiving a chocolate frog allegedly stolen from a supermarket.
Aboriginal adults are six times more likely to be arrested than other Australians and 13 times more likely to be jailed. In the Northern Territory, they make up 80 percent of the prison population although only one-third of the territory’s residents are indigenous.
Arrested for drunkenness, Doomadgee dies in jail
A young man named Mulrunji Doomadgee, of Palm Island off Queensland’s coast, was one such Australian Aborigine who was caught up in the criminal justice system. Arrested for drunkenness and swearing, he was found dead in a cell after a struggle with the policeman who had brought him in, Chris Hurley.
Critics say Doomadgee’s offense is precisely the type that does not warrant automatic arrest and imprisonment.
“The initial apprehension and locking up of Mulrunji Doomadgee were as much an issue as what happened afterwards,” says Chris Cunneen, a law professor at the University of New South Wales. “They showed how police are far too ready to arrest and take aboriginal people into custody in situations where there would be alternatives available.”
In a 2005 inquest into Doomadgee's death, Mr. Hurley – the first officer ever charged in relation to the death of an Aborigine in custody – was found responsible for the prisoner's fatal injuries. But he was acquitted of manslaughter and continues to serve in the Queensland force. A second inquest was launched earlier this month, at the same time that relatives and supporters of another prisoner who died in state custody, Stephen Currie, were protesting at the state parliament building in Brisbane.
Meanwhile, a number of Palm Islanders, who in 2004 protested Doomadgee’s death, are serving jail sentences.
Alfred Lacey, the island’s mayor, says that while the protesters were quickly jailed, he and his fellow Aborigines are still waiting for justice to be served in Doomadgee’s case.
“The law was very quick to move on the blackfellas [Aborigines] after the rioting and make sure they got locked up,” argues Mr. Lacey. “But we’re still waiting for justice on the other side of the fence. That’s the reason why aboriginal people in this country will never have faith in the system: It doesn’t treat us equally."
Royal commission's recommendations not implemented
Two decades ago, a royal commission studying indigenous deaths in custody found that aboriginal people were much more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. Among its key recommendations were that arrests should be made only if absolutely necessary and suspects should be imprisoned only as a last resort.
Social justice campaigners say there is little sign of that advice being heeded today.
Criminologists say there are numerous reasons why indigenous Australians are detained and locked up in much higher numbers than everyone else. Overpolicing is one, they say. But social and economic disadvantage also plays a major part. Aboriginal populations have elevated rates of poverty and unemployment. They live in overcrowded housing, have poorer health, and are relatively uneducated. All these factors contribute to violence and petty crime.
'Justice reinvestment' approach
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), an independent statutory body, wants the government to try to reduce the number of aboriginal people in custody by diverting some public funds that would be spent on imprisonment into problem communities. The “justice reinvestment” approach is aimed at preventing young people, in particular, from offending by providing community services and programs that address the causes of crime.
In parts of the United States, this approach has been implemented with apparently strong results. According to the AHRC, there was a 72 percent drop in juvenile incarceration in Oregon after funds were reinvested in restorative justice and community service programs.
The AHRC’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, says: “One of the biggest problems we have in this country is denial of racism. I keep saying to people: Come and live in my world for a while and you might change your opinion.”