The calls came on the 25th anniversary Friday of the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which recommended sweeping reforms to improve the plight of the nation’s first peoples, who are the country’s most impoverished.
The indigenous population remains “very much over-represented” in prison, the government’s Australian Institute of Criminology said.
Aborigines made up 14 percent of those in jail at the time of the royal commission but now account for 27 percent, even though they comprise just under three percent of the adult Australian population, Bureau of Statistics data from 2015 shows.
Despite the rise in incarceration rates, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said many of the commission’s 339 recommendations, particularly those focused on reducing the risk of deaths in custody, had been implemented.
“At the time the royal commission was established in 1989, First Australians were more likely to die in custody than non-indigenous Australians. This is no longer the case,” he said in a statement late Thursday.
“Over the past 15 years, in all but one year (2002-03), an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person has in fact been less likely to die in custody than a non-indigenous person.”
The commission had found that while indigenous people were not more likely to die in jail compared to non-Aboriginal prisoners, they were more exposed to the risk of death as there was a greater chance they were likely to be in custody.
Amnesty International accused Scullion of “glossing over” the prison statistics and called for a national strategy to lower custody rates.
“The inaccuracies in the minister’s statement continue the dodging of responsibility we have seen for 25 long years since the royal commission,” Amnesty’s indigenous rights campaigner Julian Cleary said in a statement.
“Today, one in five people who die in custody are indigenous. This must not be presented as a success; it is a disaster in a nation where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up less than three percent of our population.”
Leading Aboriginal elder Pat Dodson warned in a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra this week that “by and large the problems the royal commission was set up to examine and advise governments on, have become worse”.
“A quarter of a century after we handed down our findings the vicious cycle remains the same,” said Dodson, who is set to enter federal parliament as a Labor senator.
Aborigines have lived on the vast island continent for at least 40,000 years and number just 670,000 out of a total population of 23 million.
They have long had significantly lower education, employment and life expectancy compared to non-indigenous communities.