Deaths in custody in Australia: National Deaths in Custody Program 2008


In this report, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) continues its annual monitoring of deaths in custody, covering deaths for the period 1980 to 2008. This report analyses deaths occurring in custodial settings, such as prison and juvenile detention, as well as police custody and related operations, such as sieges and motor vehicle pursuits. It does not consider deaths in detention centres under immigration legislation.

The report has some encouraging findings. Overall deaths in custody have been generally decreasing since 2000, although there has been a rise in total deaths since 2006. There were no deaths in juvenile justice centres in 2008, however, there was a modest increase for prison custody deaths from the previous year. Police custody deaths have also increased slightly.

Indigenous deaths in both prison and police custody have been decreasing for the past decade; while non-Indigenous deaths have generally been declining, but have been on the rise since 2006. In 2008, the ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous deaths in police custody and custody-related operations dropped to one in eight. There was also a lower proportion of Indigenous deaths in prison than would be expected, based on the percentage of Indigenous people imprisoned. Indigenous people are no more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people.

There remain some concerning issues. Recent rises in total deaths, and particularly those in prison custody, are a matter for concern. However, it should be noted that when comparing these recent rises in total deaths with previous years, they remain lower than recorded numbers in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade.

While Indigenous people are not more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people, they remain significantly over-represented in all forms of custody compared with the non-Indigenous Australian population. This indicates the need for continued efforts to ‘close the gap’ in Indigenous disadvantage, particularly with regard to contact with the criminal justice system. Indigenous people comprise less than 2.5 percent of the total Australian population but account for over a quarter (28%) of young people in juvenile detention, one-third (33%) of people involved in police custody incidents and almost one-quarter (24%) of the total prison population.