To measure accurately the level of violence perpetrated by Indigenous individuals and to 'unpack' the complex interactions between the host of risk factors seemingly associated with such violence, accurate statistics on each person's actual involvement (or non-involvement) in violent offending are required, together with comprehensive details per individual on each of the potential proximate and distal risk factors thought to be associated with this violence.
Such empirically-based information does not exist. Instead, the three data sources used in this report—official criminal justice data, population or offender-based surveys and government or academic reports—each has limitations.
- Official criminal justice data collection systems, for example, only pertain to behaviours that are legislatively defined as criminal. They therefore exclude emotional, psychological or financial abuse. They also exclude those offenders who are never detected or proceeded against by police. Finally, in those few states that actually publish police statistics on Indigenous violent offenders, the procedures used to ascertain racial identity vary from one jurisdiction to another.
- Of the very small number of Indigenous-based population surveys conducted in Australia, the 1994 NATSIS and the 2002 NATSISS asked respondents whether they had previously been arrested or imprisoned. They also collected a range of details about each respondent including employment status, education levels, stress factors etc. While the resultant data provide useful insights into the extent of Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system and the risk factors for such contact, they do not relate to actual offending behaviour. Moreover, although the 1994 survey included a question about assault arrests, the 2002 NATSISS focused on all offending, thereby precluding any analysis of Indigenous violence per se. The primary source of self-reported data on Indigenous offending therefore comes from small-scale, usually one-off surveys of police arrestees and prisoners which do not provide any comparative data on those Indigenous persons who have no contact with the system.
- The third source of data—academic research and government inquiries—provides useful qualitative insights into risk factors for Indigenous violence, but empirical data are usually lacking. In addition, very few of these reports seek to statistically test the extent to which various risk factors actually predict Indigenous violent offending.
As a result, the majority of information presented in this report relates to Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system, rather than actual offending.
The three main data sources used—namely official criminal justice data, self-report survey data and research/inquiry documents—shed some light on both the prevalence and risk factors for violent behaviour by Indigenous persons. However, they fall well short of providing the comprehensive range of information needed to fully understand what is, after all, a very complex issue. As a result, the range of issues which this report was able to explore is seriously constrained, not only in terms of the number of different types of violence that could be considered but also in terms of its ability to provide any definitive insights into the relative importance of the various risk factors explored.
Types of violence considered
Despite the many different forms of violence outlined earlier, most of the statistics on violent offending by Indigenous persons contained in this report are, of necessity, restricted to those acts of physical aggression (such as homicide, common/aggravated assaults and sexual assaults) defined by Australian law as criminal. And even within this limited framework, such information was only available for a handful of states and did not extend to an analysis of criminal acts perpetrated against particular types of victims, such as children, the elderly or family members.
This report was also unable to present statistics on the perpetration of emotional, psychological, social or economic abuse or on those forms of violence, such as intergenerational violence, one-on-one fighting, dysfunctional community syndrome or sequential violence, that are defined according to the contextual circumstances of the behaviour. Nor could it provide any statistics on various forms of interracial violence, such as racially motivated or structural violence. Finally, suicide and self-harm have also been excluded because, although such behaviours have a devastating effect on Indigenous families and communities and although relevant statistics are available at both a state and national level, such behaviours do not involve the direct victimisation of one individual by another.
Other issues, although considered important to understanding the nature of Indigenous violent offending, have also been omitted because of a lack of data. For example, no discussion could be included on the extent to which Indigenous individuals who commit one type of violence also commit other types of violence. While research conducted within the general community (eg Edleson 1999; Goddard & Hiller 1993) indicates that perpetrators of physical and sexual child abuse are also likely to commit acts of spousal violence, whether such an association exists within Indigenous communities has not been empirically tested.
Nor was it possible to examine the extent to which Indigenous violent offenders engage in other forms of crime, such as property and drug offending. While there is some indication from the NHMP that a much smaller proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous homicides occurred in the course of committing another type of offence (about 1 in 25 compared with 1 in 6 respectively), the extent to which these findings could be generalised to other less serious forms of violence is not known.
If nothing else then, this report highlights the need for more comprehensive data on all forms of violence perpetrated by Indigenous persons and the circumstances within which that violence occurs. Without such data it is difficult to develop an accurate insight into the level and nature of violence perpetrated by Indigenous offenders and to accurately assess the relative contribution of the various risk factors for such violence.
Disentangling the risk factors for violence
While this report is able to identify a long list of potential risk factors, it is not able to provide any definitive empirical assessment on the relative contribution of each of these factors to Indigenous violence, or on the mechanisms underpinning these relationships. Instead, for reasons already outlined, it is limited to information gleaned from two types of studies:
- univariate analyses that provide some insight into the association between Indigenous offenders and one factor only, such as alcohol abuse or unemployment. However, such studies cannot provide an assessment of relative risk, because they do not take account of the influence of other factors that may be operating on the individual at the same time
- multivariate analyses that use more complex statistical methods to identify those variables that remain predictive of Indigenous violence once the influence of a range of other factors have been partialled out. While this approach offers some insight into the relative importance of various risk factors for violence, the few Australian studies so far undertaken have been constrained not only by their lack of access to all but a relatively small number of personal details, but also by their focus on predicting contact with the system, rather than actual offending. For example, Hunter (2001) sought to identify key predictor factors for Aboriginal arrests using data from the 1994 NATSIS, while several reports by Weatherburn, Snowball and Hunter (2006) used NATSISS data to examine the predictors of Indigenous charges and imprisonments. The results from these studies are summarised in the third section, together with a WA study which sought to identify factors predictive of Indigenous re-contact with the system for violent offending.