It’s Been 30 Years Since The Indigenous Deaths In Custody Inquest, So Why Has Nothing Changed?

royal commission

It’s been 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, but nothing has changed. More than 470 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have died in custody since the 339 recommendations were handed down in 1991. So why isn’t the government doing more about it?

This past month alone there have been five deaths in custody, yet the media has given a 99-year old monarch more attention. According to The Guardian, these deaths take the tally to 474 and that’s just the ones we know of.

These stats suggest that not enough is being done, and that the 339 recommendations are clearly not being followed closely enough. It’s lead politicians and activists to call on the government to conduct an audit on what the Royal Commission proposed.

“I mean, almost 500 deaths – some of them are by natural causes or some of them are by accident; I am not for one minute suggesting that foul play is involved – but what I am saying is that if an Aboriginal person is still able to hang themselves in a jail cell, where they should be safe, what does that tell you about the system?” Wiradjuri woman and Labor’s spokesperson Linda Burney told The Guardian

So how has the government has failed?

The government has a long-standing history of burying their heads in the sand when it comes to Indigenous issues and rights. Or as proud Barranbinya man and ex-AFL player Tony Armstrong puts it, there is too much “finger-pointing” and not enough action.

“The answers are in the Royal Commission from 30 years ago, and so many of those recommendations have not been acted upon. I mean, that’s the thing that kills me, the thing that really frustrates me,” he said ABC News Breakfast.

We have only just decriminalised public drunkeness

In 1991, the Royal Commission recommended the crime of public drunkeness be abolished as it disproportionately affects Indigenous Australians. However, it has only recently been decriminalised in Victoria (Queensland is still yet to do so), and won’t come into affect until November 2022.

Australia still has mandatory sentencing

Mandatory sentences set a minimum sentence for certain offences like murder. But some states have introduced mandatory sentencing for things like home burglary (WA) and drug and alcohol fuelled violent offences (NSW). Mandatory sentencing for more minor offences mean that Indigenous Australians are more likely to be incarcerated as they are disproportionately targeted for these crimes.

The criminal age of responsibility is too low 

In Australia, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10. However, the UN recommends the minimum age be 14.

In Victoria, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged between 10-17 are nine times more likely to be in custody than non-Indigenous children. By raising the age it would help prevent the justice system becoming a revolving door for young Indigenous Australians.

What can we do next?

The obvious thing is that the government needs to act on the recommendations from the Royal Commission. But there are things that we can do to put pressure on the government.

Please note: these examples only scratch the surface and part of being a good ally to Indigenous Australians is doing your own research and educating yourself. 

Attend marches 

Last week, gatherings, protests and marches were organised to take action against Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. There are always protests happening, so keep your eyes peeled on social media to find out when the next one is.

Sign petitions

You can sign a petition calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to meet with families whose loved ones have died in custody. Sign here.


Here’s a list of Aussie organisations you could consider supporting (however you choose).

Pay The Rent
Sisters Inside
Justice For Walker
Justice For Tanya Day
Justice For David Dungay Jr
Human Rights Law Centre
Change The Record
Red Dust – Health Promotion in Remote Indigenous Communities
National Justice Project
AnTAR – National Advocacy Organisation
Healing Foundation
Aboriginal Legal Service – NSW & ACT
Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service
Black Rainbow
AIME Mentoring

We’ve also put together ways to be a better ally here.