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The ATSISJC (2006: 12–13) has observed that 'Indigenous women are increasingly over-represented in criminal justice processes. This is occurring in the context of intolerably high levels of family violence, over policing for selected offences, ill health, unemployment and poverty'. This report explores some of these issues in order to present an overview of Indigenous women's offending patterns and their involvement in the criminal justice system generally.

The literature recognises the double disadvantage that Indigenous women in the criminal justice system face, namely, race and gender (Baldry & McCausland 2009; Behrendt, Cunneen & Liebesman 2009; Brooks 1996; Burchfield & Braybrook 2009; Corbett & Paxman 1995; Gardiner & Takagaki 2002; Payne 1993). Behrendt, Cunneen and Liebesman (2009) suggest that the intersectional discrimination they face arises because their needs are either regarded as being met through services designed for Indigenous men, or non-culturally specific services designed for women. Brooks (1996: 273) argues that until the law recognises the socially and economically oppressed position such women hold, 'it will continue to treat them unequally and, therefore, unjustly'. The 2002 ATSISJC (2002: 136) report, in turn, suggests that:

It is beginning to be accepted that while much offending behaviour is linked to social marginalisation and economic disadvantage, the impact of non-economic deprivation, such as damage to identity and culture, as well as trauma and grief, have a significant relationship to offending behaviour.

The 2002 ATSISJC report examines a range of relevant issues which are not explored here in depth, but which include:

  • policy debates about Indigenous women in corrections and human rights;
  • experiences of Indigenous women in corrections, namely:
    • disruption to family life;
    • pregnancy;
    • provision of health care;
    • visits with family and friends;
    • disruption to cultural responsibilities and dislocation from community;
    • dislocation from services; and
    • housing issues.
  • addressing the needs of Indigenous women in corrections;
  • the importance of pre- and post-release programs for Indigenous women; and
  • the issues pre- and post-release programs should address
    • housing issues;
    • dealing with violence;
    • children and families;
    • kinship obligations;
    • financial issues, employment, education and training; and
    • access to health services.

More recently, ATSISJC (2006: 335) has noted that '[l]inks must be drawn and holistic models developed and supported which address the connections between culture, drug use, alcohol use, separation from family, violence, poverty, spiritual needs, housing, health, boredom, race discrimination and gender discrimination'. Furthermore, there remains a key need for determining the views and ideas of Indigenous women themselves on their criminal justice needs and especially their post-release needs (see Baldry & McCausland 2009).

It is beyond the scope of this report to explore the relevance of drug and alcohol abuse to Indigenous women's offending patterns, but it is clear that this is a key issue for further examination (eg see ATSISJC 2002: 144–145; 152). Wundersitz (2010) recently noted that among Indigenous women, illicit drug and alcohol use seemed to be equally implicated in their offending, while among Indigenous males, alcohol was far more dominant and was a primary cause of offending.

Lawrie's (2002) survey of female Indigenous prisoners in New South Wales indicated that 68 percent of respondents were on drugs at the time of their last offence, 14 percent were under the influence of alcohol and four percent said they were under the influence of both drugs and alcohol at the time of their last offence. Only 18 percent said that they were neither drug- nor alcohol-affected at the time of their offending. The study found that there was a strong linkage between the drug use and offending behaviour of respondents. In addition, it was found that 98 percent of the women who were sexually assaulted as children stated that they had a drug problem and most equated their drug problem to their experiences of past violence and their inability to get help with it. One of the most significant and important findings of the study was 'the clear link between child sexual assault, drug addiction and the patterns of offending behaviour that led' to the women's imprisonment (Lawrie 2002: 5).

This report presents a review of the literature on Indigenous female offenders. It draws on the available data to provide an overview of Indigenous women's patterns of offending and examines the issue of over-policing in Indigenous communities. Indigenous women's involvement in the corrections system, including in community corrections and periodic detention, is also explored. As discussed in this report, although Indigenous women's over-representation in the criminal justice system exceeds that of Indigenous men, to date, research in this area has been limited. This report therefore constitutes an important addition to growing the evidence base. Further research is required, however, to better understand the needs and circumstances of Indigenous female offenders, with the hope that the findings of such research will ultimately contribute to a reduction in Indigenous women's involvement in the criminal justice system.