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Anniversary of the death of John Pat: deaths in custody crisis continues

Commission Commission – General

28 September 2000

of the death of John Pat: deaths in custody crisis continues

On the 17th anniversary
of John Pat's death in police custody, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner Dr Bill Jonas calls on States and Territories
to re-commit to the full implementation of the recommendations of the
Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

"John Pat has now
been dead for as long as he was alive," Dr Jonas said today. "His death,
investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody,
became for Aboriginal people a symbol of injustice and oppression. But
more than a decade after the Royal Commission, Aborigines are still dying
in custody at alarming rates. And they continue to be imprisoned for minor
offences despite the recommendations of the Royal Commission that jail
should be a punishment of last resort.

"The over-representation
of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system is a continuing crisis.
All levels of government have failed to respond adequately to the recommendations
of the Royal Commission and the draconian mandatory sentencing regimes
of the NT and WA have ensured that Aboriginal people continue to be jailed
for trivial offences.

John Pat was almost
17-years-old when he was found dead in a police station lock-up in Roebourne,
Western Australia on 28 September 1983. He died of head injuries sustained
during a fight with off-duty police officers outside the local Victoria
Hotel. Four officers and a police aide were later charged with his manslaughter
but acquitted at trial.

The number of Indigenous
deaths in custody in the decade since the Royal Commission has been 150%
the rate in the decade prior to the Royal Commission. To September 1999
there have been 147 Indigenous deaths in custody, compared to 99 in the
decade before the Royal Commission. From October 1999 to 30 May 2000,
there were a further eight Aboriginal deaths in custody in Western Australia

From 1988 to 1998,
the Indigenous prisoner population (across all age groups) more than doubled.
It has grown faster than non-Indigenous prisoner rates in all jurisdictions.
17.2% of all prison deaths in the 1990s have been Indigenous people, compared
to 12.1% in the 1980s.

The Royal Commission
found that the reason Aboriginal people die in custody at such an alarming
rate is because of the sheer numbers in custody. States and territories
must redouble their efforts to reduce the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal
people in the criminal justice process. It is at times like these - when
Australia is a proud nation basking in international attention - that
we should remember to refocus our efforts to protect the poor, the sick,
the marginalised among us. And we should remember the toll that imprisonment
for minor offences has taken on our indigenous people."

Media contact:
Janine MacDonald (02) 9284 9880 or 0412 783 631

© Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission. Last updated 2 December 2001.

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