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Deaths in custody in Australia: National Deaths in Custody Program 2008



In this report, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) continues its annual monitoring of deaths in custody, covering deaths for the period 1980 to 2008. This report analyses deaths occurring in custodial settings, such as prison and juvenile detention, as well as police custody and related operations, such as sieges and motor vehicle pursuits. It does not consider deaths in detention centres under immigration legislation. Since it was established to monitor issues relevant to Indigenous people in custody as explained below; the question of the future scope of the monitoring program will be considered in a planned review of this program. Monitoring of deaths in custody began in 1992 following recommendations by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCADIC), which was, in turn, a response to hangings and other deaths of Indigenous persons in custody in the 1980s. The purpose of monitoring deaths in custody is to provide accurate, regular information that will contribute to policy and programs that aim to reduce deaths in custody and to increase public understanding of the issues. The importance of this monitoring was again emphasised with the endorsement by the Australian and state and territory governments of the National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework (SCAG Working Group on Indigenous Justice 2009) to tackle serious Indigenous law and justice issues.

As with previous reports, this report uses data provided by state and territory police services, correctional and juvenile justice agencies, and has been reviewed by relevant state and territory agencies before publication. The AIC is grateful for the cooperation of all of these agencies in the preparation of this report and their ongoing commitment to monitoring deaths in custody.

The report has some encouraging findings. Overall deaths in custody have been generally decreasing since 2000, although there has been a rise in total deaths since 2006. There were no deaths in juvenile justice centres in 2008, however, there was a modest increase for prison custody deaths from the previous year. Police custody deaths have also increased slightly.

Indigenous deaths in both prison and police custody have been decreasing for the past decade; while non-Indigenous deaths have generally been declining, but have been on the rise since 2006. In 2008, the ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous deaths in police custody and custody-related operations dropped to one in eight. There was also a lower proportion of Indigenous deaths in prison than would be expected, based on the percentage of Indigenous people imprisoned. Indigenous people are no more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people.

Hanging as a cause of death in all forms of custody has been generally decreasing since the late 1990s to the lowest ever recorded numbers in 2006 and 2007. When hangings occur, young Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners are more likely to hang themselves than older prisoners. The decrease in hanging deaths may be partly due to efforts to remove hanging points and materials from cells, a prevention strategy that has been informed by specific analysis of these matters in this monitoring report since 1992.

There has been a recorded decline in the number of deaths in custody related to motor vehicle theft since 2001, as well as a decline in motor vehicle thefts across Australia over the same period (AIC 2008). It is possible that the reduction in motor vehicle thefts may have had a positive impact on deaths resulting from motor vehicle pursuits. Also both the average top speed reached in police pursuits of motor vehicles and the average length of time of pursuits have been steadily declining since 1990. In both 2007 and 2008, there was one Indigenous death resulting from a motor vehicle pursuit, representing the lowest recorded number in a decade.

There remain some concerning issues. Recent rises in total deaths, and particularly those in prison custody, are a matter for concern. However, it should be noted that when comparing these recent rises in total deaths with previous years, they remain lower than recorded numbers in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade.

While Indigenous people are not more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people, they remain significantly over-represented in all forms of custody compared with the non-Indigenous Australian population. This indicates the need for continued efforts to ‘close the gap’ in Indigenous disadvantage, particularly with regard to contact with the criminal justice system. Indigenous people comprise less than 2.5 percent of the total Australian population but account for over a quarter (28%) of young people in juvenile detention, one-third (33%) of people involved in police custody incidents and almost one-quarter (24%) of the total prison population. The issue of over-representation of Indigenous people in police custody is considered in more detail by the complementary monitoring report 2007 National Police Custody Survey Report (Williams et al. forthcoming). It should also be noted that greater proportions of Indigenous prisoners die of natural causes at younger ages than non-Indigenous prisoners, which is likely to be associated with the recognised gap in health outcomes for the Indigenous population generally.

There has been an overall decrease in deaths in police custody and related operational deaths over the past decade. However, this overall decrease hides the different trends that have emerged since 1990 between Category 1 deaths (institutional settings, raids, shootings) and Category 2 deaths (sieges, police pursuits). While Category 1 deaths have been declining steadily over the past two decades, Category 2 deaths have fluctuated but have been increasing in recent years. Since 1999, Category 2 deaths have overtaken Category 1 as the most numerous each year. Whereas most police custody deaths throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s were due to hangings, they are now primarily due to external/multiple trauma resulting from injuries sustained in police pursuits of motor vehicles and gunshot wounds in sieges. More detailed analysis of deaths in police pursuits of motor vehicles (Category 2 deaths) and shootings (either under Category 1 or Category 2 circumstances) has been included in this monitoring report.

Given the importance of this monitoring report, the AIC will conduct a review in 2011 to consider areas that may be enhanced to improve its relevance to contemporary issues, policies and programs.

Adam Tomison

Cite article

Lyneham M, Larsen J & Beacroft L 2010. Deaths in custody in Australia: National Deaths in Custody Program 2008. Monitoring reports no. 10. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. https://aic.gov.au/publications/mr/mr10