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Indigenous Australians and crime

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Indigenous Australians are both convicted of crimes and imprisoned at a disproportionately high rate in Australia. The issue is a complex one, to which federal and state governments as well as Indigenous groups have responded with various analyses and numerous programs and measures.


Many sources report over-representation of Indigenous offenders at all stages of the criminal justice system.[1][2][3][4]

The links between lower socioeconomic status and the associated issues that come with it (inadequate housing, low academic achievement, poor health, poor parenting, etc.) to all types of crime are well-established, if complex,[5][6][7][8] and disadvantage is greater in Indigenous communities than non-Indigenous ones in Australia.[9][10][11][12]

A submission by Mick Gooda to a 2016 government report emphasised that the rates of crime and incarceration of Indigenous people could not be viewed separately from history or the current social context. He referred to referred to Don Weatherburn's work, which showed four key risk factors for involvement in the criminal justice system: poor parenting (particularly child neglect and abuse); poor school performance and/or early school leaving; unemployment; and drug and alcohol abuse. Indigenous Australians fare much worse than non-Indigenous citizens in relation to these four factors, and mental illness, including foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and overcrowded housing also play a part.[8]

Crime-related issues[edit]

Violent crime[edit]

The main source of information on homicides is the National Homicide Monitoring Program (NHMP), which was established in 1990 at the Australian Institute of Criminology. A 2001 study by Jenny Mouzos, using data from 1 July 1989 to 30 June 2000, showed that 15.7 percent of homicide offenders and 15.1 percent of homicide victims were Indigenous, while census statistics showed the rate of indigeneity of the population at around 2 percent in 2000 (since found to be too low a figure[13]). The statistics were imperfect also because NHMP data is gathered from police records, which may not always identify race accurately, but an earlier review had reported "...although the statistics are imperfect, they are sufficient to demonstrate the disproportionate occurrence of violence in the Indigenous communities of Australia and the traumatic impact on Indigenous people.(Memmott et al. 2001, p. 6)". The study reported that the homicides were largely unpremeditated, and most occurred within the family environment, with alcohol involved.[14]

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence (2000, p. ix) reported that "The high incidence of violent crime in some Indigenous communities, particularly in remote and rural regions, is exacerbated by factors not present in the broader Australian community...Dispossession, cultural fragmentation and marginalisation have contributed to the current crisis in which many Indigenous persons find themselves; high unemployment, poor health, low educational attainment and poverty have become endemic elements in Indigenous lives...".[14]

Age-standardised figures in 2002 showed that 20 percent of Indigenous people were the victims of physical or threatened violence in the previous 12 months, while the rate for non-Indigenous people was 9 percent.[15] In 2011–2012, the percentage of Aboriginal homicide offenders decreased to 11 percent and victims to 13 percent.[16]

Family violence[edit]

The 2001 homicide study found that most occurred within the domestic setting.[14]

In 2002 the Western Australia government looked into the issue and conducted an inquiry, known as the Gordon Inquiry after its lead investigator, Aboriginal magistrate Sue Gordon. The report, Putting the picture together: Inquiry into response by government agencies to complaints of family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities, said that "[t]he statistics paint a frightening picture of what could only be termed an 'epidemic' of family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities."[17]

Family violence and sexual assault were at "crisis levels" in the Indigenous community in 2004, according to Monique Keel of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.[18]

Child abuse[edit]

The incidence of child abuse in Indigenous communities, including sexual abuse and neglect, is high in comparison with non-Indigenous communities. However the data is limited, with most coming from child protection reports.[19] The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare gathered data for 2008–2009 on children aged 0–16 who were the subject of a confirmed child abuse report. It showed that Indigenous children accounted for 25 percent of the reports, despite making up only 4.6 percent of all Australian children; there were 37.7 reports per 1,000 of Indigenous children and 5 reports per 1,000 of non-Indigenous children, that is, Indigenous children were 7.5 times more likely to be the subject of a child abuse report.[20]

A 2010 report showed that child sexual abuse was the least common form of abuse of Indigenous children, in contrast to media portrayals.[21] Incidents of all types of child abuse in Indigenous communities may be under-reported, for several possible reasons, including fear of the authorities; denial; fears that the child may be taken away; and social pressure.[21]

The Little Children are Sacred report cited evidence that "child maltreatment is disproportionately reported among poor families and, particularly in the case of neglect, is concentrated among the poorest of the poor", and that socio-economic disadvantage is "closely related with family violence, being both a cause of child abuse... and a form of child abuse and neglect in itself". The Indigenous community is significantly poorer than the non-Indigenous community in Australia.[22]

Alcohol abuse[edit]

There is a link between alcohol abuse and violence in Indigenous communities, but the relationship is complex and it is not straightforward causality.[23] Some of the "underlying issues associated with alcohol use and dependence [include] educational failure, family breakdown, the lack of meaningful employment and economic stagnation" (Homel,Lincoln & Herd 1999; Hazelhurst1997).[14]

The 2001 homicide study reported that over four out of five Indigenous homicides involved either the victim or offender, or both, drinking at the time of the incident.[14]

A 2019 report shows a decline in the use of alcohol, with a greater abstention rate than among non-Indigenous people, as well as in tobacco use.[24]

Illicit drug use[edit]

There is a link between illicit drugs and crime. The 2004 Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) annual report found that "37 percent of police detainees attributed some of their criminal activity to illicit drug use".[25] However the relationship is complex. The drugs most often associated with violent crime (including domestic violence) in the whole Australian population are alcohol and methamphetamine.[26]

Data from 2004–2007 showed that illicit drug use by Indigenous people over 14 years old was about twice as high as that of the general population. The data showed that 28 percent of Indigenous people aged 15 and above in non-remote areas had used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months, while the rate for non-Indigenous people in that age group in all areas was 13 percent. The illicit drugs most used by Indigenous people are cannabis, amphetamines, analgesics, and ecstasy. The increased usage may be related to the history of dispossession of Indigenous people and their subsequent socioeconomic disadvantage. Since the 1980s cannabis use by Indigenous people has increased substantially.[27]

A 2006 study investigating drug use among Indigenous people in remote and rural communities showed that, while alcohol remained the primary concern, the "often heavy use of cannabis and increasing signs of amphetamine use" was having a negative impact on the communities. Drug offences constituted a very small proportion of charges in rural communities, but substance abuse primarily involved alcohol, cannabis, petrol and other solvents, and, increasingly, amphetamines.[25]

A 2019 review reported that in 2016, 27 percent of Indigenous Australians used an illicit drug in the previous year, which was 1.8 times higher than for non-Indigenous Australians, at 15.3 percent. Cannabis use was especially prevalent: 19.4 percent had used cannabis in the last 12 months (1.9 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians, at 10.2%). 10.6 percent of Indigenous people had used a pharmaceutical for non-medical use (non-Indigenous 4.6 percent) and 3.1 percent had used methamphetamines (non-Indigenous 1.4 percent). The relationship to crime was not included in this report.[24]

The relationship between use of illicit drugs and crime, excluding possession of the drug, is not clear. Arrests of consumers (whole Australian population) still constituted around 80 percent of all arrests in 2009–10, and cannabis-related crimes accounted for 67 per cent.[28]

Detainment and imprisonment[edit]

The 2016 Australian Census recorded 798,400 Indigenous people (either Australian Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders) in Australia, accounting for 3.3 percent of the population.[13] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures show that in 2017 Indigenous Australians accounted for around 28 percent of Australia's prison population.[29] Other sources report and discuss the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in Australian prisons.[1][2][3][4]

Refusal of bail[edit]

NSW studies in 1976 and 2004 found that Aboriginals were more likely to be refused bail than the general population, being instead detained on remand awaiting trial.[30][31] This is despite provisions in the Bail Amendment (Repeat Offenders) Act 2002 aiming to "increase access to bail for Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders".[31]


ABS figures showed that Indigenous people accounted for 25 percent of Australia's prison population in 2009.[32] The age-standardised imprisonment rate for Indigenous people was 1,891 people per 100,000 of adult population, while for non-Indigenous people it was 136, which meant that the imprisonment rate for Indigenous people was 14 times higher than that of non-Indigenous people. The imprisonment rate for Indigenous people had increased from 1,248 per 100,000 of adult population in 2000, while it remained stable for non-Indigenous people.[33]

Indigenous men accounted for 92 percent of all Indigenous prisoners, while for non-Indigenous people the rate was 93 percent.[34] 74 percent of Indigenous prisoners had been imprisoned previously, while the rate for non-Indigenous prisoners was 50 percent.[35] Chris Graham of the National Indigenous Times calculated in 2008 that the imprisonment rate of Indigenous Australians is five times higher than that of black men in South Africa at the end of apartheid.[36]

A leading researcher in prison reform, Gerry Georgatos, said in 2014 that in Western Australia, one in thirteen of all Aboriginal adult males is in prison. He stated that this is the highest jailing rate in the world from "a racialised lens of our Aboriginal people".[37]

Children in detention[edit]

In 2019, the Australian Medical Association reported that around 600 children below the age of 14 are prisoners in youth detention each year, and 70 percent of them are Aboriginal or Islander children. Overall, Indigenous children are around 5 percent of the total youth population in Australia, but make up about 60 percent of the children in prisons. The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous peoples from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child had urged Australia to increase the age of criminal responsibility (10 years old in all states as of 2019), saying that children "should be detained only as a last resort, which is not the case today for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children".[38]

Deaths in custody[edit]

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was set up in 1987 to investigate concerns over the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody.[39] The 1991 report of the same name found that the death rate in custody was in fact similar for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – a discovery that surprised many[40] – and that the high number of Indigenous deaths in custody was explained by the disproportionate number of Indigenous people in custody relative to non-Indigenous people—a factor of 29 according to a 1988 report by the Commission.[41]

The issue resurfaced in 2004 when an Indigenous man, Mulrunji Doomadgee, died in custody in Palm Island, Queensland, an incident that caused riots on the island.[42] The police officer who had custody of Doomadgee was charged with manslaughter, and was found not guilty in June 2007.[43]

Suvendrini Perera, a member of the working party that reported to the West Australian Attorney-General on the coronial findings into the death of a Wongai elder who died in the back of a police van in Perth in 2008, wrote of "a culture of racism, cronyism and cover-up" evident within the Australian criminal justice system, targeting Aboriginal people as well as Sudanese Australians and asylum seekers.[44]


Circle sentencing[edit]

Circle sentencing is a process which puts Aboriginal adult offenders before a circle of elders, members of the community, police and the judiciary, who decide on the sentence, rather than a traditional courtroom. This alternative method was first trialled in New South Wales in 2003, with more than 1,200 people completing the program by February 2019. The process is used for a range of offences, such as those relating to driving, drug and alcohol, but not for serious indictable offences such as murder or sexual assault. Informed by the restorative justice approach, circle sentencing seeks to integrate Aboriginal customary tradition into the legal process. The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) analysed the program in 2008, looking at 68 participants, compared to a control group who had been dealt with through the local court. It found that the program had failed to reduce recidivism and showed that the program had not addressed the root causes of the offenders' criminal behaviour. In 2019, Director Don Weatherburn said that the program had had limited resources at that time, and the program had since been improved to deal with the causes of offending. He was confident that the forthcoming new review, with results due in 2020, would show more positive results. Anecdotally, the circles had seen a huge reduction in reoffending.[45]

Focus on socio-economic factors[edit]

Reports on the rates of Indigenous crime have also focused on reducing risk by targeting the socio-economic factors that may contribute to such trends.[46] Such factors include education, housing and the lack of employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians.


Indigenous figure Noel Pearson has criticised government attempts at tackling the crime rate among Indigenous communities.[47]

See also[edit]

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  1. 1.0 1.1 Edney, Richard; Bagaric, Mirko (2007). "10: Aboriginality". Australian Sentencing: Principles and Practice. Cambridge University Press. p. 241. ISBN 9780521689298. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lyneham, Mathew; Chan, Andy (25 May 2013). "Deaths in custody in Australia to 30 June 2011: twenty years of monitoring by the National Deaths in Custody Program since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (Abstract)". Aic Reports. Monitoring Reports. Monitoring Reports. ISSN 1836-2095. Retrieved 10 October 2019. ...over the 20 years since the Royal Commission, the proportion of prisoners that are Indigenous has almost doubled from 14% in 1991 to 26% in 2011
  3. 3.0 3.1 Cunneen, Chris (March 2006). "Racism, Discrimination and the Over-Representation of Indigenous People in the Criminal Justice System: Some Conceptual and Explanatory Issues" (PDF). Current Issues in Criminal Justice. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Government of Australia. House of Representatives. Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (2011). The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia Doing Time - Time for Doing Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system (PDF). Commonwealth of Australia. ISBN 978-0-642-79266-2. Retrieved 10 October 2019. Also by chapter in html, see Chapter 2
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  6. Wild and Anderson, p.223
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  40. Indigenous Australians and the Law, p. 9.
  41. National Report Volume 1 – 1.3 The disproportion numbers of Aboriginal people in custody, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 1991, accessed 12 November 2010. Archived 2010-11-13 at WebCite by WebCite on 12 November 2010.
  42. "Police accused of Aborigine death", BBC News, 27 September 2006, accessed 12 November 2010.
  43. Marriner, Cosima. "Calm in Palm Island after verdict", The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 2007, accessed 13 November 2010. by WebCite on 13 November 2010. Archived by WebCite on 14 November 2010.
  44. Perera, Suvendrini (19 March 2010). "Racism and cover-up pervade response to deaths in custody". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 30 September 2013.
  45. Jambor, Claudia (10 February 2019). "Does circle sentencing reduce recidivism and keep Indigenous offenders out of jail? A study will find out". ABC News. ABC Western Plains. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 11 October 2019.
  46. Weatherburn, D., Snowball, L & Hunter, B (2006). The economic and social factors underpinning Indigenous contact with the justice system: Results from the 2002 NATSISS survey. NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  47. Pearson, Noel (2013). "Noel Pearson: Failure to act also criminal". The Australian. Retrieved 30 September 2013. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)

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