Australian Institute of Criminology

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Introduction

This report, prepared on behalf of the Criminology Research Council (CRC), presents an overview of the literature on Indigenous women's offending patterns. As the Steering Committee for the Review of Commonwealth/State Service Provision (SCRCSP) has noted, however, '[l]imited data are available on Indigenous people who have interaction with the criminal justice system' (SCRCSP 2009a: C17). Significantly, there is a dearth of up-to-date and relevant information on women's offending patterns and a general silence on Indigenous women in the criminal justice system (Brooks 1996; Kerley & Cunneen 1995; Payne 1993). Where information is available, it tends to focus on Indigenous women as victims, not as offenders. In addition, much of this literature is qualitative and/or anecdotal in nature.

The lack of detailed information about women's offending patterns is not a recent problem. The final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC 1991) remains the most comprehensive examination of Indigenous people's involvement in the criminal justice system but makes no specific recommendations about Indigenous women (NSWLRC 2000; Marchetti 2007). As noted by the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner (ATSISJC),

Aboriginal women remain largely invisible to policy makers and program designers with very little attention devoted to their specific situation and needs. This is of critical importance, particularly because of the impact that imprisonment has on Indigenous families and communities (especially through separation from children) (ATSISJC 2001: 15).

The 2002 ATSISJC report found that:

Indigenous women face an unacceptably high risk of incarceration in prisons across Australia. The rising rate of over-representation of Indigenous women is occurring in the context of intolerably high levels of family violence, over-policing for selected offences, ill-health, unemployment and poverty (ATSISJC 2002: 135–136).

Indigenous women in prison reveal experiences of life in a society fraught with danger from violence. The consequences to the community of the removal of Indigenous women are significant and potentially expose children to risk of neglect, abuse, hunger and homelessness. Indigenous women also serve comparatively shorter sentences, suggesting a general failure to employ the principle of imprisonment as a last resort. Once imprisoned, recidivism statistics also indicate that Indigenous women are at greater risk of returning to gaol. Despite these factors, very little research has been conducted to explain the causes of Indigenous women's higher recidivism patterns (ATSISJC 2002).

The report also found, in respect of the statistical information which is available about Indigenous women, that:

Tracking national trends in crime and sentencing is impeded by the manner in which data is collected. In smaller jurisdictions such as the ACT and Tasmania, the actual numbers of Indigenous women from which the statistical data is derived is comparatively small, compared with the overall offender population. Statistical measures based on such small numbers may result in outcomes which appear disproportionate to the true conditions. It is for this reason that the ABS does not publish rates by sex for a number of the small States/Territories. This reduces the extent to which meaningful analysis can be undertaken (ATSISJC 2002: 154).

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. The issue of over-policing is also examined in this context. Data are then presented on community corrections and periodic detention. The majority of information in this report relates to Indigenous women as prisoners, including information on imprisonment rates and numbers. The constitution of the prison population, length of sentence imposed and security classification of prisoners are also examined on the basis of Indigenous status. The characteristics of Indigenous female prisoners are considered, especially in relation to their roles as mothers and carers. Data are presented on the age of Indigenous females in various stages of the criminal justice system, especially 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 and assault and homicide. The issues of recidivism and the relevance of family violence to Indigenous women's offending are also discussed.

The information in this report is based predominantly on information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), ATSISJC, the NSW Bureau of Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), the SCRCSP and the Western Australian Crime Research Centre. It should be noted that in August 2009, the ABS released, for the first time, statistics relating to offenders who were proceeded against by police. The data cover the period 1 July 2007 to 30 June 2008 and are available for all jurisdictions except Western Australia, but provide information on Indigenous offenders only for New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory.