A Senate Estimates hearing has revealed the Federal Government will increase its reporting of Aboriginal deaths in custody to every six months, but Aboriginal leaders are saying it’s not enough.

Since the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody on April 15, the Federal Government has received sustained pressure from politicians, advocates and families of those who have died in custody to increase reporting as a commitment to informing policy around ending Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Reliable and up-to-date data was a strong theme of the 1991 Royal Commission, with a recommendation calling for State and Territory Governments to monitor statistics and provide an annual report to Parliament.

On May 25 at a Senate Estimates hearing, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) said it would report every six months.

AIC Deputy Director Dr Rick Brown said the increased reporting is an “improvement on where we’ve been in the past”.

“Until about three years ago we were publishing reports that consisted of two years at a time,” he said.

“Obviously, following 18 months from the end of a financial year meant that you could have a period of three and a half years between a death, and it being reported. We’ve moved to annual reporting which, obviously, shortens that process.

“Now, with the change again, we’ll shorten it to less than six months.”

AIC chief executive Michael Phelan confirmed in Estimates that Indigenous people are 6.2 times more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people.

Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe questioned the AIC in regards to how the department is working with Aboriginal communities and the families who have lost loved ones in custody to report these deaths.

“What we do is do the factual report … it’s annual and now will be brought forward. We put as much information as we can in that, so that the policy agencies can then make decisions and initiate programs etcetera based on the information that we put forward,” responded Phelan.

“This is a statistical report from our point of view, so we do not do a qualitative assessment on the programs etcetera, in relation to that. That’s up to other government agencies. We provide the facts.”

Dr Brown acknowledged that whilst the department was in conversation with the National Indigenous Australian Agency (NIAA), their discussions focused on the formation of a “group that takes into account Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation”.

The group will then look at issues around data definitions and reporting methods.

When asked about their support for families and communities suffering trauma, Phelan responded that it was not the role of AIC.

“We are an agency that collects the statistics, puts them together,” he said.

“There are a number of other agencies who are responsible for that, and they use our data to help make those interactions with the community and individuals and families both at the State level and the Federal level, whether they be policing organisations or whether they be community service NGOs.”

In a March Senate Estimates hearing, the NIAA confirmed that it did not keep consolidated data on Aboriginal deaths in custody but rather relied upon yearly data from the AIC and monitored media reports.

A spokesperson for the NIAA welcomed the AIC’s decision to report more frequently, and noted to reduce over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system all governments must work in partnership with Indigenous Australians.

“The NIAA, through the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, is taking a leadership role to bring all State and Territory Governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives together to form a Justice Policy Partnership, to identify opportunities to work more effectively across governments, reduce gaps and duplication, and improve outcomes under the National Agreement,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson noted the NIAA funds activities through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy to complement the efforts of States and Territories.

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney expressed her continued dissatisfaction at the Federal Government’s reporting of deaths in custody.

“Six months is simply not good enough. Labor has made it clear that nothing less than real-time reporting, with the permission of the families, will be acceptable,” she said.

Senator Thorpe at Naarm’s Black Lives Matter rally. Photo Supplied.

Senator Thorpe told NIT after the Senate Estimates hearing that the lack of timely data was “just not good enough”.

“We are still waiting for the Government to change its approach, meanwhile our people are dying in the criminal legal system and the government doesn’t appear to be in any real hurry to rectify this unacceptable situation,” she said.

The Senator said whilst six months is an improvement from the Government’s current actions — it is still too long and recommends full implementation of the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission.

“Family members of those who have died in custody have repeatedly requested a meeting with the Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister refuses to meet with them. Our people are dying and the Prime Minister doesn’t care,” she said.

Chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service Priscilla Atkins noted her frustration.

“Accurate reporting on deaths in custody was a recommendation of [the Royal Commission] over 30 years ago now, and we have been forced to watch on as government continually fails to implement these life-saving recommendations,” she said.

“Our people continue to suffer as a result of this inaction.”

It is believed at least 475 Aboriginal people have died in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission.

By Rachael Knowles