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Deaths in custody down slightly, still 2nd highest on record

Media Release

19 March 1999

In 1998, 93 people died in police or prison custody. Although this is a fall of ten from the record high in the previous year, it remains the second highest number on record.

These are the latest findings from the Australian Institute of Criminology's (AIC) 19 year National Deaths in Custody Monitoring and Research Program, as reported by Vicki Dalton, AIC Research Analyst, at the Forensic Mental Health Conference today.

Twenty-four people died in police custody or custody-related operations, 68 in prison and one in a juvenile detention centre (this is the first Indigenous juvenile death since 1988).

Of the police custody or custody-related deaths, those in institutional police custody increased from six in 1997 to ten, and those in other custody-related police operations decreased from 22 in 1997 to 14.

Sixteen Indigenous people died in custody in 1998 - one more than in 1997. Indigenous people accounted for 13 per cent of prison deaths and 25 per cent of police custody deaths. In line with the 19 year trend, Indigenous people were significantly over-represented, accounting for 17 per cent of total custodial deaths, but only 2 per cent of the total population.

Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1990, the number of deaths in prisons has more than doubled. However, deaths in police custody or custody-related operations have declined by more than 20 per cent.

Most police custody or custody-related deaths in 1998 were by gunshot. All but one of these offenders was shot by the police. The remaining death was self-inflicted. Most prison deaths were by hanging. A record number of eight prison inmates died as a result of unlawful homicide.

The highest number of deaths occurred among people whose most serious offence was robbery, followed by assault, sex offences and homicide. Overall these four most serious categories of offences accounted for more than half of all deaths.

These patterns were very similar for previous years. The notable exception was a significant reduction in the number of people to die in police custody whose last and most serious offence was the theft of a motor vehicle. This figure was down from five to one, and is consistent with the reduction in the number of deaths occurring during the course of police pursuits.

Since 1980 the prison population increased by 76 per cent while prison deaths increased by 150 per cent. A full report on these findings is available in the AIC's latest Trends and Issues paper, Australian Deaths in Custody and Custody-related Police Operations, 1998.

Deaths in Custody will also be discussed at the AIC's National Symposium on Crime in Australia, being held at The Rydges Hotel, Canberra, 22-23 March.