NATIONAL: As you read this you can be certain police officers in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory will be arresting Aboriginal men, women and children for one offence or another, writes BRIAN JOHNSTONE*.
Most will end up contacting the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT).
In fact in NSW you can bet almost all will.
Under NSW law, police must contact the ALS whenever they have taken an Aboriginal person into custody.
The police phone the Custody Notification Service (CNS) operated by the ALS.
Those in custody receive early legal advice from an ALS lawyer, ensuring their fundamental legal rights are respected and less Aboriginal people are imprisoned.
But they are also asked one vital question: RU OK?
Often, the answer is no.
Threats of self-harm or suicide are common.
Notifications of personal injuries, which require medical attention, or the need to access medicine are also common.
CNS lawyers in NSW and the ACT are trained to respond to such situations.
They will often contact the person’s family or an Aboriginal Field Officer to minimise parental or family concerns about their whereabouts.
They are used to operating at the coalface. They take an average 300 calls a week.
The service has been operating since it was established in 2000 in response to NSW legislation which sought to implement recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
It recommended police should notify the ALS whenever they take an Aboriginal person into custody.
There have been no deaths in custody in NSW or the ACT since the CNS began.
This may be about to change.
Incredibly, the CNS is now fighting for its survival.
The service, according to the ALS, costs the same to operate as holding two juveniles in detention for one year—$500,000 per annum.
The Federal Government stopped funding the service from July 10.
ALS staff have covered the costs of the service since then by taking pay cuts but there were no dollars for the service in the recent Federal Budget.
The new Federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus says it’s up to the NSW Government to fund the service.
He points out the CNS is a requirement of NSW law but the State Government has never made a financial contribution to the
The NSW Attorney General Greg Smith says Aboriginal legal services are Canberra’s responsibility.
The Commonwealth has previously funded the service.
It should do so again.
ALS Chief Executive Officer, Phil Naden, is, understandably, disappointed at the buck passing between Sydney and Canberra.
The ALS has mounted a well-oiled public campaign to save the service through the world’s largest online petition platform online, www. change.org
At the time of writing it had been signed by more than 29,000 people but ALS says it cannot keep the service open without further funding.
At the time of writing the service, described by the ALS as a lifeline, not just a phone line, was due to cease in a couple of weeks on June 30.
Meanwhile NSW Police are caught in the middle.
Police Assistant Commissioner Geoff McKechnie recently told the Sydney Morning Herald he was preparing an assessment of what would happen should CNS close.
“We are currently talking to stakeholders to assess what it would mean operationally to police if the CNS did not exist.”
Now Backtracker is well aware of the need to rein in government spending in Canberra and Macquarie Street.
But why refuse to fund a service proscribed in law and with a proven track record of keeping Aboriginal people out of jail and from inflicting self-harm?
This question becomes even more intriguing when you consider the amount of money being sought and start having a look at the recent Federal Budget papers and the schemes Canberra does fund.
Some of the funding decisions are bizarre.
One has to assume they slip through during the Expenditure Review Committee’s coffee breaks.
How else do you explain $14.5 million to ensure the successful staging of the 2015 Cricket World Cup…or $10 million over four years to help elderly people use the internet or an additional $129.4 million to the Australian Broadcasting Commission over five years for “quality programming…”
But possibly the most bizarre…and certainly one of the most expensive single line items is the five million dollars granted to the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in the inner Adelaide suburb of Thebarton.
This money will be spent to sound proof the church against aircraft noise.
Now Backtracker has nothing against the Greek Orthodox congregation worshipping in peace but five million dollars buys an awful lot of insulation.
I concede the church is located a wing and a prayer away from the Adelaide Airport but it has been there a long time, as has the airport.
Why the funding now?
The church is in Labor MP Steve Georgana’s marginal electorate of Hindmarsh but following a redistribution it will fall into the seat of Adelaide for the forthcoming federal election.
This is held by Employment Participation Minister Kate Ellis.
Georganas was quick to scoff at suggestions the funding was “pork barreling,” but retention of the Greek community vote by Labor will be essential in seeking to ensure the continued participation of Georganas and Ellis in paid employment in Canberra post-September.
But I digress.
As I was finishing this column I received a joint press release from Attorney General Dreyfus and Justice Minister Jason Clare welcoming the findings of the National Deaths In Custody Program Monitoring Report.
Dreyfus lauded the fact the rate of all deaths in custody, particularly suicides, are some of the lowest recorded in the twenty years since the “landmark” Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody.
He describes the findings as encouraging but goes on to point out the number of Indigenous prisoners has almost doubled since the Royal Commission and it is “deeply concerning that the actual number of Indigenous deaths in prison is rising again.”
The Monitoring Report is alarming.
It shows Indigenous people represented one in seven people in prison when the Royal Commission handed down its final report in 1991.
In 2011, Indigenous people represented just over one in four people in prison.
The figures show Indigenous deaths in prison custody peaked in the mid to late 90’s and declined consistently each year until a 20 year low of just three deaths in 2005-06.
However the number of Indigenous people dying in prison custody has increased over the p[ast five years, with the number recorded in 2009-10 being equal to the highest annual total ever recorded.
NSW has consistently recorded the most deaths in custody in the past three years.
Aboriginal people represent 2.5 per cent of the total population. 48.6 per cent of the total juveniles in detention are Aboriginal. They account for 22.1 percent of the adult prison population.
The Monitoring Report cites a mountain of research which shows the underlying factors contributing to over-representation include mental health issues, alcohol and drug abuse, poor education, employment and inadequate housing.
Efforts to reduce the number of Aboriginal people ending up in custody should be directed to community level initiatives which seek to divert them into treatment and other support services.
This is precisely what the CNS does.
I hope you are now scratching your heads at the failure to continue such a service given its paltry cost and proven value.