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Patrick Dodson says plans to improve data on Indigenous deaths in custody must bring change

Labor Senator Patrick Dodson has pressured government officials over the need to ensure plans to improve the reporting of Indigenous deaths in custody can deliver change.

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) this week revealed it would now report data on Indigenous deaths in custody every six months, following sustained criticism over a failure to provide this data previously. 

The change will see the body work directly with the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) to more effectively report the information to help drive policy reform through the Closing the Gap agreement.  

Senator Dodson questioned NIAA officials at a Senate estimates hearing on Friday over how they would ensure there is accountability around the use of the data.

“How you manage the data and what effective knowledge comes from that outcome is critical to addressing the causes for why people die in custody,” he told the hearing. 

“We’re living in a very embarrassing situation – a scandalous situation and a hurtful situation where so many people have died since the deaths in custody report came out.”  

The royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991 identified a lack of reliable statistics as a key concern, recommending deaths in custody be monitored on an ongoing basis. 

In response, the AIC established a national deaths in custody program in 1992, but delays in its reporting methods have since prompted repeated demands for reform.

National Indigenous Australians Agency chief executive Ray Grigg said the change in reporting would allow the information to be used better.

“The big difference between this and previous approaches is that this group is working together to share that information,” he said. 

“As you know part of the challenge has been there’s been a bit of siloing of data – and some of these outcomes. What we’re trying to do through the policy partnership is to inject it into the Closing the Gap agreement – into the jurisdictional implementation plan.”  

The government’s response to these concerns has come under further scrutiny this year – with eight deaths in custody recorded across Australia since March. 

The AIC’s Dr Rick Brown on Tuesday told a separate estimates hearing that, up until three years ago, the reports it published were made up of data consisting of “two years at a time.” 

“[This] obviously meant … you could have a period of three and a half years between a death and it being reported,” he told the hearing. 

At a previous estimates hearing in March, Senator Dodson grilled the National Indigenous Australians Agency over a failure to adequately keep consolidated data on the number of deaths in custody.

Mr Brown said the criticism had prompted a rethink of the recording process.

“To be quite frank, after our interaction at the last Senate estimates hearing here, we … looked at the fact that it was taking some for 16 months to report,” Mr Brown said.

“We’ve moved to annual reporting, which obviously shortens that process, and now with the change again, we’ll shorten it to less than six months.” 

Under an overhaul of the Closing the Gap agreement last year, the federal government for the first time implemented new targets for reducing the rate of Indigenous incarnation.  

Senator Dodson said the government needed to ensure deaths were not only recorded, but the causes behind them investigated and understood. 

“It seems like your focus is on the narrowness of the deaths and recording the deaths and it’s not on the substantive matters that were the causation of the deaths and the data that is surrounding that?” he said.    

Senator Dodson said the federal government must take responsibility for driving this change.

“The time frames are well out – there are immediacies about some of this and it does require governments of the day particular the national government to a strong role,” he said.  

“This particular experiment or effort is going to work and if it’s going to be put in to making sure it works because this is the one blight on this country at the moment that we can fix up.” 

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