Australian Institute of Criminology

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Executive summary

This report is a literature review on Indigenous women's offending patterns. To date, research in this area has been limited and the report therefore provides an important contribution to growing the evidence base.

This report presents information on Indigenous women offenders and prisoners. Data are presented on offender rates and the proportion of female offenders who are Indigenous. Data from New South Wales, the Northern Territory and South Australia indicate that Indigenous women are between nine and 16 times more likely to offend than their non-Indigenous counterparts; this is a much greater over-representation than for men (8–10 times more likely). The issue of over-policing is also examined in this context. For example, the number of Indigenous female arrests in Western Australia almost doubled from 1,381 in 1991 to 2,744 in 2005.

Data are presented on community corrections and periodic detention. The most common community corrections order served by Indigenous women in 2007–08 was a supervision order, with 82 percent serving such an order. New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland accounted for 83 percent of supervision orders and 80 percent of all Indigenous females serving a community corrections order. The 2007–08 figures indicate that Indigenous women accounted for a minority of females serving such orders in all jurisdictions except the Northern Territory, where they accounted for 88 percent of females serving a community corrections order. Indigenous women were particularly under-represented on such orders in Victoria, where they accounted for only six percent of females serving a community corrections order. Indigenous women were also under-represented on periodic detention orders in the two jurisdictions where such orders are available.

The majority of information in the report relates to Indigenous women as prisoners, including information on imprisonment rates and numbers. Notably, the rate of Indigenous women's imprisonment across Australian rose 10 percent between 2006 and June 2009. In 2007–08, Indigenous women comprised 29 percent of women in prison, compared with 24 percent for men. Indeed, Indigenous women outnumbered them as a proportion of the relevant prison population in almost all jurisdictions.

Indigenous women generally serve shorter sentences than their non-Indigenous counterparts, which suggests that Indigenous women are being imprisoned for more minor offences, especially public order offences. The data on expected time to serve indicate that Indigenous women have a mean imprisonment time of 17.7 months and median of 9.1 months, compared with 30.4 and 14.3 respectively for non-Indigenous women. In addition, Indigenous women are more likely to be on remand than non-Indigenous women.

The characteristics of Indigenous female prisoners are also considered in this report. In particular, it is noted that rates of hospital admissions for mental disorders were three times as high for Indigenous female prisoners as in the Indigenous population of Western Australia generally and Indigenous women's post-release mortality rates are much higher than for Indigenous men. Indigenous women's role as mothers and carers is also examined, with calls for further research into the needs of Indigenous women in prison who have infants and young children with them and the appropriateness and ease of access to programs which enable such prisoners to keep their children with them, as well as the adequacy of measures to meet their needs upon release. In this context, the NSW Aboriginal Women with Dependent Children Leaving Prison Program pilot is a welcome development.

Data are presented on the age of Indigenous females in various stages of the criminal justice system. Overall, it cannot be said that there is any clear difference in the age profile of offenders on the basis of Indigenous status. Indigenous female prisoners are, by contrast, younger than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Recent figures indicate that 23 percent of Indigenous female prisoners in Australia were aged 24 years or under, compared with 12 percent for non-Indigenous women.

The data on juveniles indicate over-policing of young Indigenous females and under-utilisation of diversionary mechanisms. Some of the reasons for the failure to divert may include Indigenous juveniles' earlier involvement in the criminal justice system, more serious prior criminal records or differences in policing practices. The report builds on previous AIC research that found that Indigenous female juveniles were disproportionately apprehended by police in only some jurisdictions compared with Indigenous male juveniles.

Policing, court and corrections data provide an overview of the types of offences committed by Indigenous women, with particular reference to the offences of public drunkenness, assault and homicide. Significantly, according to the most recent data on the most serious offence committed by female prisoners, acts intended to cause injury (ie violence not amounting to homicide) accounted for a greater proportion of offences for which Indigenous women were imprisoned, compared with non-Indigenous women. It has been suggested that this pattern may be in response to domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Recent AIC research has found that although males comprise the bulk of those who commit offences, the Indigenous female rate of offending for homicide, acts intended to cause injury and dangerous/negligent acts were higher than for non-Indigenous females and males. Accordingly, it is suggested that the incidence and nature of violent behaviour by Indigenous females requires closer scrutiny.

The issue of recidivism is also discussed in this report. In particular, Indigenous women were more likely than non-Indigenous women to have previously been incarcerated. In fact, the majority of Indigenous female prisoners in most jurisdictions have had prior experience of imprisonment; nationally, 63 percent of Indigenous women prisoners had previously been in an adult prison, compared with only 38 percent of non-Indigenous women.

Finally, the relevance of family violence to Indigenous women's offending is explored, with data indicating that many Indigenous women are subject to violence and victimisation at much higher rates than non-Indigenous women and these issues are thought to be linked to their offending patterns.