Deaths in custody still rise Indigenous People and the Criminal Justice System

By Rebekah Hatfield


With the recent death of 22-year-old Aboriginal woman Julieka Dhu, who died while being held in police custody, the Indigenous community is outraged by the ongoing injustices they face within the criminal justice system.


Sadly, Aboriginal deaths in custody are not an infrequent occurrence, with statistics showing they are on the rise.


There have also been several high-profile deaths in custody in the last 20 years. Most notably, the death of Western Australian man Mr Ward, who died in the back of a state transportation vehicle while being moved to a correctional facility.


What is exceptionally disturbing about this case was that on being examined, Mr Ward was found to have severe burning to a majority of his body.


It was assumed that the burns were caused by the metal interior of the van, which overheated when the air conditioning broke; the day of his death being an extraordinarily hot day in outback Western Australia.


What these two cases demonstrate is that the occurrence of a death in custody is not necessarily connected to the severity of the offences. Both of these cases were in relation to traffic offences, with Ms Dhu being held due to unpaid traffic fines.

Additionally, in a report by NITV, there appears to be a huge inconsistency between the sentencing of Indigenous people when compared to non-Indigenous people who have committed similar offences.


NITV’s Tara Callinan reports that of the 14 people convicted of drink driving charges in Moree, NSW, half were put behind bars. In contrast, all 124 people convicted of the same offence in northern Sydney escaped jail time.


Could you imagine a white offender from an affluent north Sydney suburb sentenced to death because of a traffic offence? No, I’m sure you couldn’t, but cases like these are on the rise in the Indigenous community.


Last year, the Australian Institute of Criminology conducted a study on the rates of deaths in custody. This report found that although over the last decade Aboriginal deaths in custody have decreased, they dramatically increase in the years 2008-2013.


These incidents may be on the rise due to the increasing number of Indigenous people in prison, with statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics last year showing that 27 per cent of the Australian prison population identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Despite only making up three per cent of the Australian population, over a quarter of the prison population identifies as Indigenous.


The fact that Indigenous people continue to die while in custody, particularly when in relation to a driving offence, is a huge injustice.


I can only feel for the families who have lost their loved ones due to these ongoing systematic issues. I ask all Australians to demand more from our governments and police, because until something changes, injustices and tragedies like these will continue to happen.