Friday 16 April 2021, 6:00 am
The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT is calling for NSW parliamentarians across the political spectrum to embrace recommendations from a parliamentary inquiry into First Nations over-incarceration and deaths in custody.
Today’s report from the NSW Legislative Council’s Select Committee on the High Level of First Nations People in Custody and Oversight and Review of Deaths in Custody coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’s final report.
It is appropriate that the very first recommendation from this NSW inquiry is to fully implement the recommendations from the Royal Commission, many of which have been gathering dust for the last 30 years.
"Yet this highlights the fact that reports and recommendations mean very little unless they are embraced by governments and translated into decisive action,” said Karly Warner, CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT (ALS).
The ALS supports many of the NSW inquiry’s recommendations, including those to raise the age of legal responsibility to at least 14; to amend the Bail Act 2013 to include a provision requiring decision-makers to take into account a person’s Aboriginality; and to expand the power and resources of the Coroners Court.
“Honouring children’s right to grow up in schools, homes and playgrounds rather than prisons is a step that’s long overdue. We also welcome amendments aimed at seeing fewer Aboriginal people languishing in cells without having been sentenced of a crime,” Ms Warner said.
However the organisation is disappointed that none of the recommendations address systemic racism within NSW Police, NSW Corrective Services and other government institutions – a key message from the Black Lives Matters movements around the world, and which saw thousands of people take to the streets in peaceful protests in NSW over the last 12 months.
“Systemic racism is at the root of Aboriginal people’s traumatic experiences with the legal system. Any analysis of over-incarceration and deaths in custody that fails to fully reckon with systemic racism is skimming the surface,” Ms Warner said.
“It is a real shame to see only nine references to racism in a 250-page report, and nothing about racism in the recommendations.”
Ms Warner also called for Government to increase funding to the ALS, resourcing the organisation to fully participate in implementing the report’s recommendations.
“We really want to play our part in making these changes happen, and many of them simply won’t be possible without our participation as the peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services in NSW and the ACT,” Ms Warner said.
“For example, the inquiry recommends that the NSW Coroner examine whether there are systemic issues in relation to Aboriginal deaths in custody, and whether implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations could have prevented recent deaths in custody.
“The inquiry rightly recommends that the Coroner’s Court be given funding for this, but the recommendations make no mention of funding the ALS to support Aboriginal families to provide their evidence and offer our expertise on systemic issues.
The ALS already operates on very thin resources. You can’t achieve justice for Aboriginal people without adequately funding the organisation that represents them within the justice system,” Ms Warner said.
Some recommendations do not go far enough.
“Additional and independent oversight is essential for accountability. The report recommended that the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission have expanded power to investigate deaths in custody. Aboriginal people must have representation at the highest levels of any oversight body, and for this reason we will accept nothing less than an Aboriginal-identified Commissioner role at the LECC,” Ms Warner said.
Instead of amending Section 4A of the Summary Offences Act as recommended, the ALS is calling for its repeal.
Offensive language should not be a criminal offence in the year 2021, and it is shameful that Aboriginal people are still being dragged to court and police stations for this.
"And while consideration should be given in relation to intimidation as a summary offence, there is already provision within the Crimes Act to address offending relating to intimidation – there is no need for offensive language to remain as a standalone offence,” Ms Warner said.
The organisation also said Recommendation 22, that NSW Police’s Suspect Target Management Plan be reviewed for “consideration” of excluding children under 14, is not satisfactory.
“It is not enough to limit the STMP to over 14-year-olds. This is a discriminatory program that amounts to racial profiling, and that is unacceptable no matter the age of the Aboriginal person being profiled,” Ms Warner said.
“We have had five Aboriginal people die in custody within the last two months. We call on the NSW Government to urgently act on these recommendations and not wait six months to respond, as indicated by the report.”
Media contact: Alyssa Robinson - [email protected] / 0427 346 017