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Illegal drug use identified as an important factor in the criminal offending of women

Media Release

10 January 2005

Dr Makkai today released the latest report from the Australian Institute of Criminology, "Drugs and crime: a study of incarcerated female offenders" .

The primary focus of this report is on the drug and alcohol use and criminal careers of 470 women who were incarcerated in prisons in six jurisdictions in Australia in 2003.

This research is part of a wider project on the Drug use careers of offenders that has already reported on drugs used by adult male prisoners in Australia.

"The report found that compared with male prisoners, female prisoners were more likely to be under the influence of illegal drugs at the time of their most recent offence," Dr Makkai said.

Offenders were involved in a range of offences across their criminal careers. Three-quarters were regular offenders, half were regular property offenders, almost two-thirds were regular drug sellers or buyers, and one in 10 were regular violent offenders. Thirteen per cent were also regularly involved in sex work.

The women involved in this study reported substantial involvement with a variety of illicit drugs. In the six months prior to their arrest, 40% of the female prisoners were regular cannabis users, 37% were users of amphetamines, 27% were heroin users, 15% illegally used benzodiazepines and 6% used cocaine.

This study offers many opportunities to examine a range of risk factors for drug and alcohol abuse and offending. Results show that:

  • 87% of incarcerated women were victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse in either childhood or adulthood.
  • Childhood and adult abuse were correlated with drug dependency and involvement in the sex trade.
  • Physical abuse in childhood was a predictor of violent offending.
  • Mental health problems were correlated with drug dependency, violent offending and involvement in the sex trade.
  • 17% of offenders had spent time in juvenile detention and this indicator of early onset of serious offending was related to drug dependency and regular property and violent offending as adults.
  • Drug-dependent women and persistent property offending women were more likely to have grown up in families with drug problems.
  • Women with alcohol and drug dependencies, and those who were violent offenders, were more likely to have grown up in families with alcohol problems.
  • Female offenders who used prescription drugs were between two and four times more likely to use illegal drugs.

This research was funded by the Australian Government Attorney-General's Department under the National Illicit Drug Strategy and was conducted with the cooperation of Corrective Service organisations in six jurisdictions.