Australian Institute of Criminology

Skip to content

Imprisonment decisions on Indigenous offenders in NSW and SA

Media Release

12 December 2012

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) today published a comprehensive analysis of lower court sentencing of Indigenous offenders from 1998-2008 in NSW and South Australia.

Authors Dr Samantha Jeffries and Dr Christine Bond from the Queensland University of Technology School of Justice, carried out a statistical analysis of sentences handed down to Indigenous offenders, and examined the probability of Indigenous versus non-Indigenous defendants receiving a prison sentence over time.

Dr Jeffries said that across the study period, results generally showed that Indigenous offenders were more likely to receive a prison term than similarly situated non-Indigenous offenders and that this gap may well be increasing.

“The pattern of lower court sentencing disparity over time differed by jurisdiction. In NSW, there was a higher likelihood throughout the entire period that Indigenous offenders would receive a prison sentence.

“By contrast, in the South Australian lower courts, disparity was found to have increased, with earlier years showing parity and leniency, before a trend towards a greater likelihood of a prison sentence for Indigenous offenders,” Dr Jeffries said.

The analysis controls for key sentencing determinates such as sex, age, criminal history, seriousness of current offence, plea, and bail status.

The results stand in contrast with prior research undertaken in Australia at the higher court level where either equality or leniency is found to be extended to Indigenous offenders. The findings may indicate that lower court magistrates are required to make sentencing determinations under tighter time constraints and with less information.

“This raises the question as to whether, faced with having to make decisions under the pressure of limited time and information, lower court officials may subconsciously draw on community-based stereotypes when ordering sentences,” Dr Jeffries said.

“A current study on sentencing in problem solving courts in South Australia show when more time is necessarily taken in these lower courts, there is more leniency shown towards Indigenous defendants,” Dr Jeffries said.

AIC director, Dr Adam Tomison, said that : “The effect of imprisonment on younger offenders, and the potential for an offender to reoffend on release, is well documented.  So it is important to evaluate magistrate and judicial decision making, and the various factors they take into account.

“This is valuable research which helps legal services and courts around the country to examine and monitor their sentencing practices around Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders,” Dr Tomison said.