How many Inquiries do we need?
The NSW Government’s response to a report on First Nations people dying in custody was met with dismay by Western NSW Community Legal Centre (WNSWCLC) after a mere 10 of the 39 recommendations were supported.
The Dubbo-based centre’s Principal Solicitor, Patrick O’Callaghan, and Aboriginal Support Worker, Mellissa Shennan both gave evidence to the Select Committee Inquiry. Practical initiatives proposed in the resulting report - the High Level of First Nations People in Custody and Oversight and Review of Deaths in Custody – were largely ignored in the Government’s tabled response this month.
In light of the disappointing outcome, Ms Shennan’s poignant evidence to the Committee in December last year remains critically relevant. Ms Shennan works for the centre’s domestic violence unit, Western Women’s Legal Support (WWLS). She told the Inquiry that since the 1991 Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody there had been more than 434 Indigenous deaths in custody.
She said: “The rate of incarceration of Indigenous people has almost doubled. Indigenous people are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated and are almost 18 times more likely to die in custody [Australia-wide]. These numbers don’t happen by accident. These numbers are a result of continued government failings and a justice system that punishes us for its own mistakes and oversights. Never-ending cycles of insincere apologies, empty promises of equality, displacement, discrimination, child removal, incarceration and poverty.
“My voice shakes because these deaths, these numbers in front of you had names, had families and communities. Their families stood silent at premature funerals and went home with pained hearts. Your systems have failed us and continue to fail us. What’s the acceptable number? How many more will die? How many more of our kids won’t come home? How many more inquiries will we need to attend to give the answers you already have? These are our fathers. These are our mothers. These are our children. These are our communities.”
WNSWCLC and WWLS are committed to advocating for changes to the criminal justice system, and promoting a greater investment in early intervention, prevention and diversionary programs, to reduce the overrepresentation of First Nations Peoples in prisons. For example, the government must improve post-release support for inmates, especially in rural, regional and remote areas, to help avoid reoffending. Our full written submission to the inquiry is available on the Parliament of NSW website.
Principal Solicitor, Western NSW Community Legal Centre
Phone: 02 6884 9422