On 20 September this year, Tane Chatfield died in custody at Tamworth Correctional Centre. He was 22 years old. A few months earlier, in August, a 47-year-old Indigenous man was found unconscious in his cell at Adelaide City Watch House. In July this year, father of five Eric Whittaker died of a brain haemorrhage at Parklea Correctional Centre, with varying accounts of his death given to his family. Eric's cousin David Dungay had also died in custody, two years before. These men are just the latest in a shamefully long line of Indigenous Australians to die in custody. Of course, behind each of these tragic cases lies a hard truth, one best told in numbers.
One in four prisoners in New South Wales correctional facilities is Indigenous. Indigenous women are imprisoned at a rate 15 times higher than non-Indigenous women. On any given day in Australia there are 10,000 Indigenous Australian adults and 500 Indigenous children in custody. In fact, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child is 24 times more likely than his or her non-Indigenous classmates to end up in jail. PriceWaterhouseCoopers put the cost of Indigenous incarceration at $7.9 billion per year. Most shocking of all, since the royal commission 26 years ago, close to 350 Indigenous Australians have died in custody.
In this place, and in parliaments across Australia, we must acknowledge that these numbers expose our categorical failure in Indigenous justice. That includes our failure to assist Indigenous Australians to overcome barriers to legal advice that is appropriate and effective and our failure to connect the soaring number of indigenous children in out of home care with justice interactions. It includes our failure to meaningfully address deficiencies in bail laws that reflect the cultural specificities of Indigenous Australians and our failure to equitably distribute diversionary programs or to adopt justice reinvestment. It also includes our failure to meaningfully bridge the gap in all the areas of life that stack the deck against our Indigenous brothers and sisters, especially when it comes to education, health, heritage and recognition.
Of course, the world is watching. Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recently visited Australia. She reported to the United Nations Human Rights Council that the rates of Indigenous incarceration in Australia were a "major human rights concern." Most damning of all, she slammed governments from coast to coast for a "lack of political will to address the situation, despite that key measures for improvement have been repeatedly identified by a string of national and state inquiries, royal commissions, coroners' reports, and international human rights monitoring mechanisms." This at the same time that Australia is seeking support for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
What can we do? In a recent speech to Amnesty International, the Hon. Linda Burney laid a path forward. She spoke of the Labor Party's call for the Federal Government to adopt a national justice target, reduce incarceration rates and refocus on community safety. She spoke of the fact that incarceration does little but beget more crime, and called for a substantive shift towards a justice reinvestment framework. She also spoke of the critical importance of education. The NSW Bar Association offers a substantive blueprint to combat the problem that was issued in response to the Federal Government's call last year for the Australian law Reform Commission to investigate the crisis of Indigenous incarceration. It includes changing State and Territory sentencing laws to better acknowledge the systemic underpinnings that result in Indigenous incarceration. This follows the example of jurisdictions such as Canada, where sentencing judges must pay "particular attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders."
The blueprint also calls for the removal of mandatory sentences, a key driver of Indigenous incarceration. Instead, preference should be given to community-focused approaches such as restorative justice and community courts, because we know that they work. We must be led by the experts on this because there is a massive gap to close and we are just not getting there. Each of us in this place can and must do more to end the shameful tragedy of Indigenous deaths in custody. It must be a top order priority because we cannot let the deaths of people like Tane Chatfield and Eric Whittaker be in vain.