Australian Institute of Criminology

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Executive summary

The issue of violence within Indigenous communities has attracted considerable political and media attention in recent times, culminating in the establishment of the National Indigenous Violence and Child Abuse Intelligence Task Force in 2006 and the Australian Government's Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER; colloquially referred to as the Australian Government Intervention) in 2007. These initiatives were preceded by a large number of academic writings and government inquiries, all of which point to disproportionately high levels of violence within Indigenous communities, with some commentators describing it as 'all pervasive' (Fitzgerald 2001) or at 'epidemic levels' (Gordon, Hallahan & Henry 2002).

This report focuses on Indigenous perpetrators of violence and aims to quantify the prevalence and nature of violent behaviour as well as examine empirical evidence on the relationship between violence and its associated risk factors.

Official criminal justice statistics indicate that:

  • Indigenous persons are substantially more likely
    to be charged with a violent offence than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
  • The majority of Indigenous persons apprehended for a violent offence were charged with common or minor assault while comparatively few were charged with sexual assault.
  • Indigenous perpetrators of violence have a greater likelihood of being re-incarcerated for a violent act and to be re-incarcerated in a shorter period of time than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

In terms of victim/offender characteristics:

  • Most acts of violence involving an Indigenous victim occurred at the hands of an Indigenous perpetrator.
  • Most homicides perpetrated by an Indigenous offender were directed against a family member.
  • There is a higher level of interracial violence by Indigenous offenders than is generally assumed.

To provide a conceptual framework for understanding Indigenous violence, this report uses the ecological systems approach which recognises that risk factors for offending are located not only within the individual, but also in the broader environment within which the individual lives. Those situated in close proximity to the individual him/herself are classified as 'proximal' factors while broader community characteristics are classified as 'distal' factors.

Understanding the risk factors to violence: A univariate approach

  • sex—Indigenous males are substantially more likely to be apprehended for a violent offence than Indigenous females, even though they account for roughly equivalent proportions of the Indigenous population;
  • age—the risk of perpetrating violence varies according to age, with those in the mid ranges of 18–34 years the most likely to engage in such behaviour;
  • Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander—persons who identify as Aboriginal have a higher risk of contact with the criminal justice system than do Torres Strait Islanders;
  • alcohol misuse—alcohol is now regarded as one, if not the, primary risk factor for violence in Indigenous communities. However, contrary to popular perception, at a community level, the percentage of those who consume alcohol is no greater within the Indigenous population than the non-Indigenous population. However, among those who do drink, Indigenous persons are more likely to engage in high-risk alcohol consumption or 'binge drinking' than their non-Indigenous counterparts;
  • illicit drug use—in contrast to alcohol, illicit drug use is less prevalent within the Indigenous population than the non-Indigenous population;
  • childhood experiences of violence and abuse—evidence suggests that Indigenous children experience relatively high levels of child abuse and neglect which, in turn, increases the likelihood that they will grow up to become perpetrators of violence;
  • exposure to pornography—anecdotal evidence suggests that access to pornography is widespread in some Indigenous communities, particularly in remote areas, and that such exposure increases the risk of sexualised violence among children and adolescents as well as adults;
  • education, employment, income and housing—there is empirical evidence linking offending to factors such as poor schooling, unemployment and poor housing within the general Australian population via their contribution to more proximal risk factors such as low self-esteem, high stress levels, a sense of alienation and helplessness, poor social functioning, repressed anger and boredom;
  • physical health—while Indigenous people have significantly poorer health outcomes than non-Indigenous people across a broad range of indicators, empirical evidence linking physical health and disability to an increased risk of becoming a violent offender is sparse;
  • mental illness and psychological distress—within Indigenous communities, a relatively high proportion of adults and children experience psychological distress and mental illness;
  • geographic location—the relationship between geographic location and the risk of violence is not definitive. While data from the National Homicide Monitoring Program (NHMP) undertaken by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) indicate higher levels of homicides in remote communities, findings from the 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) suggest that residents in these more isolated settings were no more likely to experience contact with police than those in major urban centres; and
  • access to services—numerous inquiries have criticised the ineffectiveness or lack of services provided to both perpetrators and victims of Indigenous violence, particularly in semi-remote and remote areas of Australia.

Understanding the risk factors to violence: A multivariate approach

Unlike univariate data, multivariate analyses seek to identify those variables that remain predictive of offending when the influence of other factors has been controlled for. Only a handful of Indigenous-specific multivariate analyses have been undertaken in Australia and all have sought to predict Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system, rather than actual offending behaviour. With the exception of Mukherjee et al. (1998), who tested a very small number of potential risk factors, the analyses found that gender, alcohol use/abuse, education levels, age (ie under 25 years), labour force status and place of residence (ie whether the Indigenous person lived in a major city, rural or remote location) all proved to be independently predictive of the likelihood of Indigenous arrests. Of these, consumption/abuse of alcohol was ranked either first or second.

Addressing the knowledge gaps

Ways of addressing some of the current gaps in our knowledge of Indigenous violent offending include:

  • reassessing the content of the NATSISS and other Indigenous population surveys to include questions about actual offending behaviour;
  • undertaking more effective 'mining' of existing police apprehension data via specific data extracts to investigate some of the issues for which published information is not currently available (such as the frequency of Indigenous apprehensions for child abuse); and
  • improving the quality of police apprehension data, particularly by ensuring that each state and territory collects information on the Indigenous status of offenders and victims via direct questioning of these individuals, using the standard Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Indigenous status question (ABS 1999).

Should we be placing more focus on protective rather than risk factors?

Alongside the body of evidence attesting to the marked prevalence of violent offending among Indigenous Australians is the fact that the majority of Indigenous people are not violent, even though many confront the same risks as offenders and live in the same communities where violence is endemic. This suggests that there may be other factors that serve to protect the individual against involvement in violence.

Far more attention needs to be paid to identifying protective factors for Indigenous violence, given that much may be achieved in the area of crime prevention and crime reduction by clarifying and reinforcing the strengths inherent in Indigenous communities (Homel, Lincoln & Herd 1999). Perhaps by placing greater emphasis on identifying and nurturing the protective factors, more effective intervention strategies can be developed in the future.