A 59-year-old Aboriginal man died in Darwin on May 21 while being held under controversial new “paperless arrest laws”. These laws give police the powers to arrest people for summary offences — such as “obscenity”, undue noise, offensive language — and hold them for up to four hours at a time.
In NSW, a program that has been proved to prevent Aboriginal deaths in custody has lost funding under the federal government’s ironically named Indigenous Advancement Strategy.
In Western Australia, the government has cut Aboriginal health funding by almost 50% and is threatening to withdraw funding for essential services in remote Aboriginal communities, forcing them to close.
Across Australia, governments are telling Aboriginal people that their lives don’t matter.
Late last year, the Country Liberal government of the NT introduced new “paperless arrest laws”, which the government said would free up police time and allow them to deal with “troublemakers” in a timely fashion.
Normally, an offender is charged with an offence and required to appear before a court. The paperless arrest laws allow police to detain people without paperwork or even laying charges.
Police can take a person into custody for up to four hours if suspected of committing a minor offence, such as offensive behaviour, even if they are not charged with that offence. Where charges are laid, it need not result in a court appearance, but the issuing of an infringement notice. The person has no right to legal advice while in custody.
The man, who was from Alice Springs and in Darwin for medical treatment, was picked up by police for “suspected” alcohol-related offences. Three hours later he was dead in his cell.
The law has been widely criticised. The Criminal Lawyers Association of the NT warned that the powers would be open to abuse. “The general pattern is that if you give someone power to exercise over somebody, they will use it”, the association’s Russell Goldflam said.
The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Association (NAAJA) predicted the laws would disproportionately affect Aboriginal people. NAAJA, along with the Human Rights Law Centre, has since launched a High Court appeal against the paperless arrest laws.
Ruth Barson from the Human Rights Law Centre told ABC radio’s AM on May 25: “We conducted a freedom of information application and it was demonstrated to us that in the first three months of operation the new powers have been used over 700 times and 75% of those times involved Aboriginal people. We've also now seen the most devastating impact of these laws. Last Thursday night, an Aboriginal man died in police custody.”