Aboriginal deaths in custody


At the time of writing, the available evidence suggests that since 1980, at least 100 Aboriginals have died in the custody of the Australian police or prison authorities. This number may well increase during the life of the Muirhead Royal Commission. The Commission, established in August 1987following the sixteenth Aboriginal death in custody in eight months, is chaired by the Honourable Mr James H. Muirhead, Q.C., former Justice of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, Judge of the Federal Court of Australia and Acting Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology.

Early in the life of the Royal Commission, it became apparent that the Commission's inquiries would take well over a year to complete. The Royal Commissioner urged Australian governments to take immediate action to reduce the risk of deaths in custody, and not to postpone reforms until the tabling of his final report. It is hoped that the present document will be of use in the interim.

Readers should bear in mind that the problem of death in custody is by no means limited to Aboriginals. Moreover the problem of Aboriginal deaths in custody is linked to fundamental issues which go beyond matters of criminal justice. It would be unfortunate if, by focusing on the criminal justice system, we lost sight of the profound social, cultural and economic problems which confront Aboriginal people.