Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration

| March 12, 2015

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates have been steadily rising and are worse than any time in recent memory. Don Perlgut says this is a national problem that demands a national solution.

In mid-February of this year, the Australian Prime Minister presented the annual “Closing the Gap” report to Parliament. Although some indicators saw improvement (health), in others – especially in education and employment – there was almost no improvement at all.

Of great concern is the statement on page 28 – of which little fanfare was made at the time – that, “the rate of imprisonment is higher than at any time during the decade”. The decade? In other words, Indigenous imprisonment has been steadily rising and is worse than any time in recent memory. That’s not just “no improvement”; it is a serious step backwards.

For anyone paying attention to the statistics on Indigenous disadvantage, this comes as no surprise. In December of last year, the Productivity Commission’s report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2014, made this point clearly (pp. 4.102-4.104):

  • Nationally at 30 June 2013, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate was 2039.5 per 100,000 adult population, an increase of around one‑third from the rate in 2000 (1433.5 per 100,000 adult population).
  • Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up only 2.3 percent of the Australian adult population, they accounted for 27.4 per cent of all prisoners. (Note: the Indigenous population is heavily skewed to younger ages, with the national percentage of population about 3 percent.)
  • After adjusting for differences in population age structures, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults was 13 times the rate for non‑Indigenous adults.

Let’s be clear about what these figures say: more than one-quarter of people in Australian prisons are Indigenous, a rate more than ten times (1000%) their population percentage. When age is adjusted (thus comparing “like with like”), the figures are even worse: thirteen times (1300%). But it gets worse.  The report also states that:

  • Between 2000 and 2013, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased by 57.4 per cent while the non-Indigenous rate remained fairly constant, leading to a widening of the gap (from 8.5 to 13.0 times the rate for non-Indigenous adults).

What this means is that Indigenous imprisonment rates have GONE UP by 50% in the last 13 years, while non-Indigenous rates have REMAINED THE SAME throughout the same period. In other words, the figures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have gotten worse and not just a little – A LOT worse. You can track the inexorable year by year growth of Indigenous imprisonment through the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. Although there are some state variations (Tasmania is the best, Western Australia is the worst), this is a systemic national problem which demands a national solution.

Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, calls these figures a “catastrophe in anyone’s language”, pointing out in December 2014 that “we do better at keeping Aboriginal people in prison than in school”. He also noted that almost half of Australians in juvenile detention are Indigenous – so the trend does not look like reversing any time soon.

The Creative Spirits website summarises a number of inter-related factors for these high rates: stolen generations, disconnection from land, police behaviour, offence criminalisation, poverty and unemployment, language difficulties, foetal alcohol syndrome and poor housing. A significant number of Indigenous Australians are incarcerated for trivial offenses that rarely impact non-Indigenous people, including unpaid fines, unlicensed driving, not receiving court mail, not attending court and “disorderly conduct”. One common theme in these offenses is poverty: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to avoid jail for small offences.

These results are terrible in themselves, but three factors arise that underline their significance:

First, this increase in Indigenous imprisonment could have been avoided through a careful analysis of why, where and how Indigenous people are put in prison or into the juvenile justice system (where they now represent up to one-half of participants), and crafting appropriate responses.

Secondly, as the Productivity Commission report drily states (page 4.102), “Imprisonment has a heavy social and economic impact. High rates of imprisonment remove adults from their important roles caring for the next generation and can lead to the ‘normalisation’ of incarceration among community members.”

Thirdly – and most insidious of all – the high rate of imprisonment affects how we non-Indigenous Australians view Indigenous people. Although the comparison is not complete, rates of imprisonment of African-Americans in the USA run six times those of whites in that country. The result there means that, as Professor Heather Thompson (Temple University) points out, there is a “disproportionate policing” of young black men and women, and that in turn “sends a signal to the broader society that there is something inherently criminalistic about black people”. She calls the American rates of imprisonment a “mass incarceration” with unknown outcomes; surely the same applies to Indigenous Australians.

We can do better and improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rates of imprisonment. For the sake of creating an equal and just Australia, we must.

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  1. Anti Cupiditas

    March 12, 2015 at 4:41 am

    Indigenous Imprisonment in Australia

    Having lived in indigenous communities for 3/4 of my life I can confidently state that the total & utter lack of discipline & total & utter lack of responsibility & total & utter lack of committment to harmony is cause # 1. Cause #2 are bureaucrats with no interest in indigenous communities making decisions for indigenous communities. Cause # 3 are indigenous community leaders who have no concept of responsibility & simply mimick incompetent bureaucrats' jargon which affords them utterley undeserved respect which in turn is being exploited by bureaucrats for political expediency which in turn simply perpetuates status quo. Integrity is forbidden by policy. Crime related behaviour is the end result.