Australian Institute of Criminology

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Indigenous justice

Indigenous justice

Indigenous justice in focus

Indigenous Australians (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples) experience contact with the criminal justice system – as both offenders and victims – at much higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians. Rates of violent victimisation among Indigenous Australians are two to three times higher than rates among non-Indigenous Australians and this rises to four to six times higher in the case of family violence.

Indigenous Australians are very much over-represented in Australian prison populations, with imprisonment rates that are around 12 times those of the rest of the Australian population. Despite making up less than three per cent of the overall Australian population, Indigenous people make up 40 per cent of those imprisoned for assault offences. Rates of over-representation are even higher in juvenile detention, with a 10-17 year old Indigenous person being around 24 times more likely to be in detention than a non-Indigenous person of the same age.

Factors that increase risk

There are similar risk factors for being involved in violence as either an offender or victim. For Indigenous Australians, these include misuse of alcohol, socio-economic disadvantage, childhood exposure to violence and abuse, the younger age profile of the Indigenous population, previous involvement with the criminal justice system and psychological distress.

Seeking help

While surveys and inquiries show a large proportion of all violent incidents are never reported to police, this is even more so when victims are Indigenous. As much as 90 per cent of violence involving Indigenous Australians is not reported, leaving victims unable to get the help and support they need, and police being unable to deal with the perpetrators. The reasons why Indigenous Australians often choose not to disclose violence are similar to those for the wider community, but made more complex by multiple layers of disadvantage, heightened concerns about violent retribution, and historical fear and distrust of police and other government agencies.

Ways of encouraging reporting of these incidents include making available specially trained police and support services that have culturally appropriate staff and service models; fostering community awareness and education; supporting community-led responses that include healing and restorative justice approaches, and ensuring victims are safe from further violence and have access to effective alcohol treatment and residential services.

Deaths in custody

Data from the AIC's monitoring program shows that, generally speaking, the number of Indigenous people has been decreasing since the late 1990s. While suicide, particularly through hanging, was once the main cause of deaths in prison custody, this has gradually changed so that in recent years almost all Indigenous deaths in custody have resulted from natural causes and there is a similar trend for non-Indigenous deaths. Further research to examine and understand deaths of prisoners through natural causes will be a focus of further monitoring reports, once the unique program goes through an extensive review.

Following a review, the five yearly police custody survey will be done on an annual basis, where custody data will be analysed and reported on. The first of these reports will be released in late 2012.

Current projects

The AIC is concluding a review of Aboriginal community patrols in the Northern Territory, to improve the reporting and performance framework for this unique program. Aboriginal community patrols deliver community-based crime prevention and also offer insights into community perceptions and experiences of community safety. A Technical background paper ‘Community Night Patrols in the Northern Territory: Towards an Improved Reporting and Performance Framework’ has been prepared for the Attorney-General’s Department.

The AIC is evaluating a media classification awareness campaign being run by the Northern Territory Department of Justice. This campaign is aiming to make sure Indigenous people across the Northern Territory understand the Australian media classification system, prohibitions against possession of pornography in prescribed communities, and to help parents and other responsible adults make strong choices to prevent children being exposed to sexual images.

The AIC is also evaluating the law and order measures under the Northern Territory Emergency Response and the Northern Territory National Partnership Agreements. It is analysing police and other justice data as well as data generated through community safety surveys, and is also examining a range of evaluations and reviews to determine what impacts these law and order measures have had on Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. The results of the AIC’s work, and that of other independent authors, will form part of a comprehensive review to be produced by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).
The AIC reports on deaths in custody annually, and every five years it reports on the incidence of police custody, as a result of recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The next deaths in custody monitoring report, covering data to 2010, will be released in early 2012. Following a review of the methodology for collecting the data on police custody incidents, an improved report will be released in late 2012 covering data to 2011.