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Data on policing and arrests

Offender rates and proportion of offenders

Table 1 sets out the offender rate per 100,000 by gender and Indigenous status for the three jurisdictions for which information is available (see ABS 2009b). Indigenous women in New South Wales are 9.3 times as likely to offend than their non-Indigenous counterparts; this is a much greater over-representation than for men, for whom the figure is 5.8. The figures for South Australia and the Northern Territory are 16.3 (vs 9.5 for men) and 11.2 (vs 8.7) respectively. As will be seen below, although Indigenous women are much more likely than non-Indigenous women to be imprisoned, their rate of imprisonment is less than for non-Indigenous men. However, these figures demonstrate offending rates for Indigenous women which far exceed those of non-Indigenous men (by a factor of 2 for New South Wales and the Northern Territory and by a factor of 4 for South Australia).

Table 1: Offender rates, by gender and jurisdiction (per 100,000), 2007–08
NSW 5,591 13,964 603 2,389
SA 8,203 19,905 504 2,089
NT 4,294 15,995 385 1,831

Source: adapted from ABS 2009b


Figure 1 sets out the proportion of female offenders by Indigenous status and jurisdiction. As can be seen, there is a very different offending profile in the Northern Territory, where Indigenous offenders make up the majority of female offenders. The differences in the composition of the populations should be noted, however, with Indigenous people accounting for 32 percent of the Northern Territory population, compared with two percent in New South Wales and South Australia (ABS 2006). In addition, caution should be exercised when comparing Indigenous and non-Indigenous data for certain offences. For example, in New South Wales, the total unknown Indigenous status was nine percent, but this rose to 50 percent for public order offences. Offenders proceeded against by way of penalty and/or infringement notices have higher rates of unknowns as these methods of proceeding are less likely to capture Indigenous status information (ABS 2009b).

Figure 1: Female offenders by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 2007–08

Female offenders by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 2007–08

Source: Adapted from ABS 2009b

Cunneen has noted that

Surveys of people held in police custody regularly reveal that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women comprise around 50 per cent of all women taken into police custody in Australia…The 1995 Police Custody Survey revealed that Indigenous women were 58 times more likely to be held in police custody then non-Indigenous women; by comparison Indigenous men were 28 times more likely to be held in police custody than non-Indigenous men (Cunneen cited in ASTISJC 2002: 145).

Furthermore, he found that

women in general are detained in police custody proportionately more for offences of public disorder than are men, and that Indigenous women are particularly susceptible to being detained (Cunneen 2001: 165).

The available evidence suggests that Indigenous women are over-represented at all stages in the criminal justice system and that in some instances, this is to a greater extent than for males. For example, while Indigenous males aged 10 years and over were six times as likely than the general male population to appear in a NSW court in 2001 (19.7% vs 3.2% of the respective population), the figure for females was almost nine times (6.1% vs 0.7%; Weatherburn, Lind & Hua 2003).

Kerley and Cunneen (1995) referred to RCIADIC data indicating that Indigenous women accounted for almost 50 percent of women in police custody, a situation which the authors suggested should demand 'immediate investigation'. Indeed, in the Northern Territory, Indigenous women accounted for 88 percent of women in police custody, while the figures for Western Australia and Queensland were 72 percent and 57 percent respectively. Kerley and Cunneen (1995: np) noted that

One would have thought that the sheer weight of such data would have demanded a response which considered the relationship between Aboriginality, gender, police practices and the use of custody...Yet despite the empirical evidence on the specific overrepresentation of Black women, they barely rate a mention.

The Australian Institute of Criminology's (AIC) 2002 National Police Custody Survey provides a limited update and apparent improvement on this picture; Indigenous women accounted for 23 percent of police custody incidents, compared with 14 percent of non-Indigenous police custody incidents (Taylor & Bareja 2005). These data do not specify, however, what proportion of the female police custody population was Indigenous women.

Gardiner and Takagaki (2002) found, based on data from the ABS and Victoria Police (VicPol), that Indigenous women (adult and juvenile) constituted 20 percent of all Indigenous offenders processed in Victoria from 1993 to 1997. Interestingly, the number of adult Indigenous women processed by VicPol fell by three percent, compared with an eight percent increase for non-Indigenous women (Gardiner & Takagaki 2002). Indigenous women were almost five times more likely to be processed for an offence than their non-Indigenous counterparts, although there was a small decline over the period under examination. In particular, the over-representation was highest for crimes against the person (by a factor of 10) and lowest for crimes against property (factor of 3). The authors described the 'worsening over-representation ratio' as a matter of great concern (Gardiner & Takagaki 2002: 308–310). Other data indicate that the number of Indigenous female arrests in Western Australia almost doubled from 1,381 in 1991 to 2,744 in 2005, which is 'mostly due to large increases in justice and good order offences and driving-related offences' (Loh et al. 2007: 43). Data were not provided for non-Indigenous women, but it was noted that this number was 'relatively steady' (Loh et al. 2007: 43).

An examination of arrest rates by BOCSAR, based on data from the 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey (NATSIS) indicated that 11 percent of Indigenous women had been arrested in the previous five years, with arrest rates highest for capital cities and lowest in rural areas (16% vs 8%; Hunter & Borland 1999); the figure for Indigenous men was 33 percent. The average number of arrests in that period was 2.3 (Hunter 2001). Further analysis of the 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) by Weatherburn, Snowball and Hunter (2006) indicates that 22 percent of Indigenous females aged 15 years and over report ever having been arrested, with three percent having been imprisoned. The figures for males were 54 percent and 12 percent respectively (Weatherburn, Snowball & Hunter 2006). Comparable figures for the non-Indigenous population are not available.

The consequence of high arrest rates should also be considered. After controlling for other key factors, having been arrested was found to reduce the probability of employment by 13 percent for Indigenous women—from 29 percent to 16 percent (Hunter & Borland 1999). Victorian prison census data from 2000 indicate that 87 percent of female Indigenous prisoners were recorded as unemployed (Blagg et al. 2005), while Lawrie's (2002) survey indicated that 92 percent of the respondents said they were not working at the time of their last offence. The ATSISJC (2005: 188) has noted that:

In recent discussions with communities concerning issues faced by Indigenous women exiting prison, one of the concerns raised was the difficulties many Indigenous people faced in accessing employment after their release from prison. While some jurisdictions are providing employment programs in an attempt to address this issue, Indigenous people remain severely disadvantaged with regards to employment if they have a criminal record.