Australian corrections: the imprisonment of Indigenous people


The operation of the criminal justice system, including police, the courts and incarceration, is a public policy matter that impacts on some sectors of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. The disproportionate level of Aboriginal deaths in custody that occurred nationally in the 1980s, was, according to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, a result of their disproportionate level of incarceration, rather than systematic patterns of foul play, deliberate violence or brutality on the part of police or prison officers.

The Australian Institute of Criminology has been a significant contributor to research on Indigenous Australians and the criminal justice system. As part of a current series of reports on Australian imprisonment, this paper examines trends and characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners during the 10 years from 1988 to 1998. More specifically, this paper:

  • examines trends in Indigenous imprisonment in recent years;
  • analyses the major features of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison populations and their changes over the 10-year period from 1988 to 1998; and
  • compares the characteristics of Indigenous and non-Indigenous prison populations in terms of demographic composition, legal status, most serious offence leading to imprisonment, sentences imposed by courts and time spent in prison.

The disproportionate involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal justice system has been explained in terms of such factors as (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991):

  • differences in levels and patterns of offending compared to other Australians; and
  • lifestyle differences, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being socially and economically disadvantaged relative to the rest of the population.

The results discussed in this paper are based on analyses of data from the National Prison Census (Australian Institute of Criminology 1988 and ABS 1998). A discussion of the main features of the National Prison Census is contained in Carcach and Grant (1999).