The Over-Representation of Indigenous People in Custody in Australia
The imprisonment rates of Australian indigenous people have been an embarrassment to Australia for many years. In 1991, the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody highlighted the significant over-representation of indigenous people in Australian prisons. The 1994 Report of the Inquiry into the Implementation by Governments of the Recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody - entitled "Justice under Scrutiny" - showed how difficult an issue indigenous imprisonment is for government bodies in Australia to solve, but by focusing on the criminal justice system both Reports ensured that no progress was going to be made in the ensuing years: - the figures are no better now than they were in 1994.
In the space of a few paragraphs, this page presents some of the key facts about the imprisonment of indigenous people in Australia and explores two of the principal reasons behind the statistics, in the hope that they will assist politicians, the media, academics and lobby groups to focus their efforts towards the causes rather than the symptoms of the problem. The page is based on a presentation I made, with the assistance of Natasha Gayfer, to the April 2003 Community Justice Forum organised in Morwell by the Victorian Department of Justice.
Where does Over-Representation in Custody Begin?
Indigenous people in Victoria are predominantly younger than the non-indigenous population. Many are in the most "crime-prone" age group of 15-19 years. This is partly because of higher birthrates amongst Indigenous people, but more a result of their higher death rates, and is similar in other parts of Australia.
Young working age indigenous people are increasingly moving to the metropolitan area, and away from their cultural roots:
Indigenous Over-representation in the Justice System starts in early childhood: the following chart shows that indigenous children in Victoria were far more frequently the subject of substantiated Child Protection orders between 1996/7 and 2001/02 than non-indigenous.
Data on Persons proceeded against by Police in Victoria show that over-representation persists through life. Age-specific rates for Indigenous people far exceed those for non-indigenous at all ages.
They are also over-represented across the whole range of offence types, although it varies greatly by offence type. The following chart shows the over-representation of indigenous people aged under 25 in arrests during 2000/01:
In contrast to non-indigenous offenders, Indigenous young people are more likely to be arrested than cautioned or summonsed. The chart below shows comparative rates for Victorian young people aged under 17 during 2000/01.
Indigenous young people are more likely to be in Juvenile Detention in Victoria.
Indigenous people are more likely to be in adult prisons than non-indigenous in all age-groups. The chart below shows over-representation ratios as at June 30 2002. Indigenous people are 5-15 times more likely to be in prison than non-indigenous, and the greatest over-representation is amongst those under 21 years of age.
A significant contributor to this over-representation is the very high Indigenous rate for "Offences against Good Order", which includes breaches of court orders.
But the greatest clue as to why Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system is so high and persistent, is in the following two charts. The first shows comparative over-representation by Aboriginality and whether finished school; the second shows comparative over-representation by Aboriginality and unemployment. The first chart shows that Indigenous people who finished school were "only" three times more likely to be in prison, on 30 June 1996 or 30 June 2001, than non-indigenous people who finished school. Indigenous people who finished school were actually much LESS likely to be in prison than non-indigenous people who had never finished school (by a ratio of 3:19 in 1996, or 3:32 in 2001). Poor education is therefore a more significant predictor of imprisonment than Aboriginality. However, the combination of being Indigenous and failing to complete schooling makes people over two hundred times more likely to be in prison than an educated non-indigenous person, and the disparity has actually got worse since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody!
Unemployment has a similar, though not quite so dramatic, effect. Employed Indigenous people were less than ten times more likely to be in prison, on 30 June 1996 or 30 June 2001, than employed non-indigenous people. Employed Indigenous people were LESS likely to be in prison than unemployed non-indigenous people (by a ratio of 9:16 in 1996, or 6:26 in 2001). Unemployment is therefore a more significant predictor of imprisonment than Aboriginality. However, the combination of being Indigenous and unemployed makes people over one hundred times more likely to be in prison than an educated non-indigenous person, and the disparity has actually got worse since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody!
Do you still think that the problems in Indigenous communities can be solved by the criminal justice system?
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