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The issue of violence within Indigenous communities has attracted considerable government, public and media scrutiny in recent times, as indicated by the establishment of the Australian Crime Commission's (ACC's) National Indigenous Violence and Child Abuse Intelligence Task Force in 2006 and the Australian Government's NTER to protect Indigenous children from child abuse, which was announced in June 2007.

However, attempts to quantify levels of Indigenous violence have focused primarily on the experiences of Indigenous victims, while discussion of potential risk factors has relied heavily on qualitative or anecdotal information. They have, therefore, tended to be 'top heavy with theory and discussion, and lack reporting of empirical evidence on violence' (Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001: 2).

This report focuses on Indigenous perpetrators of violence and wherever possible, draws upon quantitative information to describe the nature of offending behaviour and its potential precursors. Its primary aims are twofold: first, to provide data on the prevalence and nature of Indigenous violent offending and second, to summarise the empirical evidence pertinent to the risk factors for Indigenous violence.

This report is divided into sections:

  • The remainder of the first section deals with some key definitional and conceptual issues, including brief overviews of:
    - the ecological systems approach to understanding crime 'causation'; and
    - some general criminological theories that may help to explain the link between certain risk factors and offending behaviour.

It also describes the key data sources used in the report, their strengths and limitations, and the implications for the issues that could be canvassed.

  • The second section presents statistics on the nature and frequency of Indigenous violent offending (including recidivism), derived from criminal justice databases and self-report surveys, and draws comparisons with non-Indigenous offenders to identify areas of difference in offending patterns between the two groups. It also includes a brief exploration of the victims of Indigenous offending, notably their Indigenous status and relationship to the offender.
  • The third section describes the broad range of historical, community, family, individual and precipitating factors put forward by various government inquiries and academic studies as risk factors for Indigenous violence and details the empirical evidence linking at least some of these factors to that violence. In addition to considering each risk factor individually, this section summarises the results from a handful of multivariate analyses that attempt to identify key predictors of Indigenous violence while partialling out the effects of other, potentially relevant variables.
  • In the conclusion, the key findings of the report are summarised, some of the major gaps in the current knowledge of Indigenous violent offending are identified and ways of addressing these gaps are recommended. Attention is also drawn to the need to focus more heavily on exploring protective rather than risk factors for violence within Indigenous communities.

By focusing on Indigenous offenders, this report builds upon, and should be read in conjunction with, a recently published overview of the risk factors for Indigenous victims of violence (Bryant & Willis 2008). It should be stressed, however, that any attempt to provide an overview of the complex issue of Indigenous violence will inevitably suffer from 'the twin dangers of generalisation and decontextualisation' (Hunter 2007: 88). This report is no exception. Given the considerable diversity in the histories, experiences and present-day characteristics of Indigenous communities in Australia, the nature, extent, causes and impact of violence will vary considerably from one location to another. Such diversity can only be accurately captured by a case-based ethnographic approach, which compares patterns of violence in a range of Indigenous communities located at different points across and within the urban/rural/remote continuum. However, such an approach is beyond the scope of the present exercise. Instead, this report simply aims to pull together those general themes and findings from existing research and published statistical reports. Most of the information in these published works could not be disaggregated to a sub-state regional level, let alone to a discrete community level.

Another danger in a generalised report of this nature is its potential to contribute to a perception that all Indigenous communities are beset by violence and that all Indigenous people (particularly males) are perpetrators of such behaviour—a perception which the mainstream media, particularly through its coverage of the NTER, seems to have nurtured. This is not the case. A large number of Indigenous Australians never commit criminal offences, let alone acts of violence. It has been noted that 'many Aboriginal people have been able to function productively, without disturbance to their self-esteem or cultural identity' (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000: 49). Similarly, a major study of justice issues in Cape York, Queensland commented that 'while there were serious problems in [these] communities [they] also produce gifted artists, musicians, athletes and intellectuals and include close-knit families, industrious workers and resilient people' (Fitzgerald 2001: 5).

While acknowledging the limitations inherent in the generalised overview presented here, some broad commonalities regarding both the extent of Indigenous violent offending and the correlates of that violence can be identified. Although these may not be present in all Indigenous communities or apply to all Indigenous perpetrators of violence, they do have some general validity. Documenting these findings may provide a background against which more community-specific understandings of violence can be developed.

Definitional issues

Often reports and commentaries refer to a generic Indigenous community when, in fact, there are a multitude of different communities ranging from remote to urban locations. Discussions of violence tend to focus on spatially separate remote or semi-remote communities. Similarly, violence can be defined by the type of behaviour involved, the characteristics of the victim and the circumstances in which it occurs, with a predominant focus on the forms of violence occurring at an intra-community level. See Appendix B for further details and discussion of these key concepts.