Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: The Need for Alternative Sentences

Information on this page was reviewed by a specialist defence lawyer before being published. Click to read more.
Black man in jail cell

Questions have been raised about the safety of prisoners in custody, particularly those who are Aboriginal, after a number of recent deaths of people who were being held for minor offences.

In NSW, 39-year-old Stanley Lord died of a heart condition while in police custody for driving while disqualified.

Mr Lord was serving an 18-month custodial sentence for driving offences and suffered from heart problems.

He was reportedly resuscitated five times while in custody, before being sent to hospital, where he died in intensive care.

Although he had been found guilty of driving without a licence, Mr Lord didn’t have any previous history of drink driving or dangerous driving, and nobody had been hurt as a result of his driving offence.

In spite of the ruling by the NSW Coroner that Mr Lord’s death wasn’t a direct result of his treatment in custody, the case has still sparked debate as to whether it is fair to put people in prison for minor traffic offences, especially where there is no victim.

In another recent case, a 22-year-old WA woman died after being in jail for four days due to an unpaid $1,000 fine.

Julieka Dhu repeatedly sought medical attention during her time in custody and was taken to hospital and discharged twice before she passed away on the day before she was due to be released.

An investigation has been launched into why Miss Dhu’s requests for help were ignored and why she was sent back to custody after presenting at hospital twice with vomiting, severe pain and partial paralysis.

Harsh sentences for minor offences

As well as raising awareness of the prejudice against Aboriginal people held in custody, these cases have raised questions about the appropriateness of holding people in jail for non-payment of fines, and for minor offences.

According to Ben Wyatt, the opposition spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs in WA, the cost of incarcerating people over a few thousand dollars is more than the amount of the fine, which means it’s not a financially viable system.

This policy also unfairly targets the poor, and serves to maintain the higher than proportionate rates of Aboriginal people in custody in Australia.

According to the Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal people are incarcerated for minor driving offences at a disproportionate rate to other members of the community.

Currently the NSW Government is believed to be looking at reforming the current driving laws amid recommendations that penalties for unlicensed driving offences be reduced so that custodial sentences are used less.

Incidents of deaths in custody

Historically there have been many deaths in custody, and Aboriginal people have formed a high percentage of those who have died.

In NSW, there hasn’t been an Aboriginal death in custody since 2000, which the Aboriginal Legal Service believes is largely due to a government-funded support line offering legal advice to Aboriginal people in custody.

The Custody Notification Service (CNS) is a system that is in place in NSW and the ACT but so far hasn’t been implemented in WA, where a number of Aboriginal deaths in custody still occur.

The CNS is a government-funded service that requires police to notify the Aboriginal Legal Service every time an Aboriginal person is arrested or detained in custody.

A representative from the Aboriginal Legal Service then speaks to the person over the phone and check their welfare and provide them with legal advice.

The service currently receives over 300 calls per week from police in NSW and there have been many cases where welfare and mental health issues have been picked up by the service and appropriate treatment has been arranged.

The legal advice provided by the service also allows many Aboriginal detainees to avoid spending extended periods of time in custody by providing advice or advocating for them.

The CNS was threatened last year after the NSW Government announced they were removing the funding ($500,000 per year), but this was reinstated after a widespread public awareness campaign undertaken by the Aboriginal Legal Service.

Change is needed

The death of Julieka Dhu last month has led to calls for the CNS to be implemented in WA as a way to help prevent further deaths in custody and provide support and advocacy for Aboriginal people who have been arrested or detained.

It has been speculated that if Ms Dhu had access to a service like the CNS she would possibly have avoided being detained in custody on the matter of fines, or at the very least her medical condition would have been taken seriously and her death could have been avoided.

Stanley Lord’s death has prompted calls for changes to the law and more rehabilitation programs for those in regional areas who have been disqualified from driving.

Mr Lord had been disqualified from driving after multiple cases of driving while unlicensed but, living in a regional area and having little to no public transport available, there were few other options than to drive if he wanted to get anywhere.

This is a challenge faced by many in regional areas, and has prompted a recent investigation into driving licence disqualification periods and whether they should be reduced.

In spite of various public awareness campaigns and investigation by government committees, it is difficult to understand why deaths in custody are still occurring, especially among the Aboriginal community and people who have been jailed for minor offences for which a non-custodial sentence would be the likely outcome.

Last updated on

Receive all of our articles weekly


Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

Your Opinion Matters