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Risk factors for Indigenous violent offending

This section of the report:

  • summarises the broad range of factors that seem to be associated with, and may potentially act as, risk factors for Indigenous violent offending; and
  • explores the empirical evidence that links some of these key factors to an increased likelihood that an Indigenous person will engage in violence.

Types of risk factors: An overview

Consistent with the ecological approach outlined in the first section, five sets or layers of factors have been identified that may contribute, either directly or indirectly, to Indigenous violence: historical events, community characteristics, family characteristics, individual characteristics and the specific circumstances that directly precipitate an act of violence.

Historical factors

The incidence of violence in Indigenous communities and among Indigenous people cannot be separated from the history of European and Indigenous relations (Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001).

These sentiments echo those expressed a decade earlier by the RCIADIC:

It was the dispossession and removal of Aboriginal people from their land which has had the most profound impact on Aboriginal society and continues to determine the economic and cultural well being of Aboriginal people to such a significant degree as to directly relate to the rate of arrest and detention of Aboriginal people (RCIADIC 1991: para 19.1.1).

Several discrete stages in the process of cultural, economic and social dispossession have been identified. Various reports have identified a long list of negative consequences arising from this contact history (eg see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000; Blagg 2000; Fitzgerald 2001; Gordon, Hallahan & Henry 2002; Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001).

These include:

  • the breakdown of traditional laws and systems of governance;
  • loss of religious practices and spirituality;
  • loss of the traditional economic base;
  • loss of traditional social structures and controls, including child rearing practices;
  • imposition of a negative socio-political status, with its attendant removal of rights and responsibilities, personal freedom and social autonomy;
  • breakdown of traditional gender roles, resulting in the marginalisation of Indigenous males;
  • exploitation of Indigenous labour and denial of wages; and
  • racism and ethnocentrism.

These negative consequences of colonisation have, in turn, given rise to a host of community and individually-based risk factors for Indigenous violence (described below).

Community and family characteristics: The distal factors

A wealth of data has been accumulated which demonstrates that, when compared with Australian society as a whole, Indigenous communities are disadvantaged across a range of indicators. As Memmott and National Crime Prevention (2001) and others have noted, such communities are often characterised by:

  • low income levels and the absence of a viable economic base;
  • high unemployment levels, a lack of long-term job prospects and high welfare dependency;
  • poor and overcrowded housing conditions;
  • low educational attainment and low literacy levels;
  • poor physical and mental health; and
  • short life expectancy rates (including high infant mortality rates).

Associated with these overt forms of socioeconomic disadvantage are factors such as:

  • low levels of community and family cohesiveness;
  • high levels of intra-family conflict and community factionalism;
  • low levels of family and community resilience and social capital;
  • lack of proper parenting and child rearing skills. An inquiry into violence in Cape York, for example, argued that the mission and dormitory systems 'removed from adults the responsibility for being primary carers for children', while generations of institutionalisation resulted in the diminution of parenting skills (Fitzgerald 2001: 310);
  • high levels of alcoholism and illicit drug use;
  • lack of functional role models to guide young individuals during crucial transition points in their lives; and
  • exposure to pornographic material, especially in some remote communities.

These characteristics have been further exacerbated by a lack of access to the skills and resources needed for effective community management and by a dearth of effective government initiatives and programs designed to tackle key problems. The persistence of institutional and systemic discrimination, which serves to perpetuate existing inequalities, also plays a role (Ella-Duncan et al. 2006; SCRGSP 2007; SNAICC 1996), as does the way in which government agencies 'do business' in these communities. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence and Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development (2000), for example, drew attention to the so-called 'Aboriginal industry' and claimed that, in many communities, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous agencies had failed to deliver critical services and produce tangible outcomes. Included in this is the fact that government systems often do not respond quickly and effectively to incidents of violence (as discussed in more detail later in this report).

Factors situated within the individual: The proximal factors

Individuals who reside in disadvantaged communities will inevitably experience at least some, if not most, of those disadvantages themselves, including long periods of un- or under-employment, lack of or low income levels, living in overcrowded households, being prone to chronic physical and mental health problems and being neglected and/or exposed to violence as a child. These experiences all help to shape individuals' personalities and influence how they will perceive and respond to a given situation, including the likelihood that they will resort to dysfunctional adaptive behaviours such as violence (Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001). In particular, these community-based disadvantages may contribute to:

  • high levels of alcohol and (to a lesser extent) illicit drug misuse (see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner 2006; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000; Bolger 1991; Fitzgerald 2001; Gordon, Hallahan & Henry 2002; Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001; Mouzos 2001);
  • high levels of stress and anxiety;
  • low resilience levels and poor coping skills;
  • psychological problems, including lack of self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, alienation, marginalisation, frustration, hopelessness, depression, shame and apathy, all of which are particularly pronounced among males who have been characterised as 'the disaffected, alienated, angry young men' (Hunter 1990: 274);
  • intellectual disabilities, psychiatric and mental health problems such as paranoid schizophrenia;
  • poor infant health and insecure childhood attachment (Telethon Institute for Child Health Research cited in Gordon, Hallahan & Henry 2002);
  • neurological impairment or brain damage caused by petrol sniffing and alcoholism; this includes foetal alcohol syndrome which impacts on the individual's learning ability and behaviour, resulting in difficulties in social problem-solving, lack of impulse control and lack of memory or cognition that potentially leads to an increased risk of suicide, incarceration, early pregnancies and violence (Fitzgerald 2001);
  • unresolved anger, which may be particularly characteristic of males responding to their diminished power base (Hunter 1990); and
  • boredom and peer group pressure, particularly among young males (Fitzgerald 2001).

Precipitating causes

One final component, which is embedded within the microsystem and therefore constitutes a proximal risk factor for violent offending, relates to those specific events that actually trigger an incident of violence—the so-called 'precipitating causes'. These may include:

  • jealousy over relationships and material goods (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000; Gladman, Queensland Heath & National Injury Surveillance Unit (Australia) 1998);
  • 'payback' by individuals, families or larger groups against a perceived transgressor. In the APY Lands, for example, Mullighan (2008) documented numerous instances where the perpetrator of a child sexual assault incident was, himself, violently beaten by the family of the victim as retribution for his behaviour; and
  • failure to repay a debt. This factor has particular relevance in Indigenous communities where there are high levels of poverty and welfare dependence and where only a handful of people have disposable incomes (Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001).

Empirical information on the actual motivation for particular incidents of violence is relatively sparse, although some insight is provided by the NHMP (SCRGSP 2007). For the 35 homicides recorded in 2004–05 where both the victim and the perpetrator were Indigenous, the key triggers were:

  • domestic altercation (43% of the 35 Indigenous homicides);
  • alcohol-related argument (20%); and
  • other argument (17%).

In contrast, the main triggers for the 203 non-Indigenous homicides recorded in that same year were 'other argument' (42%) and 'domestic altercation' (20%), while 'alcohol-related argument' was listed as the trigger in only six percent of cases (SCRGSP 2007).

What evidence links selected risk factors to violence?

Despite the large number of potential risk factors for Indigenous violence, very few empirical studies have attempted to explore the nature or strength of these relationships or to disentangle the complex interactions that inevitably exist between them. Consequently, there is no clear consensus about which of the multitude of disadvantages confronting Indigenous communities should be addressed first in order to achieve a reduction in current levels of Indigenous violence.

The aim of this section is to summarise the relatively scant empirical evidence that indicates a link between violent behaviour and selected characteristics situated within the individual and their environment. Data from two types of studies or approaches are described:

  • univariate analyses that focus on the relationship between Indigenous violence and one risk factor only, such as alcohol misuse or unemployment; and
  • multivariate studies that use more complex statistical methods to identify those variables that remain predictive of Indigenous violence once the influence of a range of factors have been partialled out.

Univariate relationship between violence and individual risk factors

The individual risk factors considered are:

  • demographic variables of gender, age and Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander identity;
  • alcohol and illicit drug use;
  • childhood experiences of violence;
  • exposure to pornography;
  • indicators of socioeconomic disadvantage, notably education levels, employment, income and housing;
  • physical and mental health;
  • geographic location, including remoteness; and
  • access to services.

In accordance with the ecological systems approach to understanding risk factors for violence, each of the following subsections is divided into two components. The first briefly summarises what is known about that variable at a community level (ie as a distal factor), while the second focuses on what is known about that variable as it relates to Indigenous offenders (ie as a proximal factor).


The overwhelming majority of Indigenous (as well as non-Indigenous) persons who offend and are processed by the criminal justice system are male. This applies across all Australian jurisdictions and spans most offence types, including offences of violence.

Police apprehensions data

Police data from Western Australia, which details the number of Indigenous persons apprehended at least once during 2005 according to the most serious offence charged against them during that year (Loh et al. 2007), show that:

  • Indigenous males accounted for 76 percent of the 3,796 Indigenous persons apprehended for a violent offence. This is 1.6 times greater than expected, given that they represented only 49 percent of the Indigenous population aged 10 years and over at the time of the 2006 census (ABS 2007).
  • For every 1,000 Indigenous males aged 10 years and over in that state, 133.7 were apprehended at least once for a violent offence. This was more than three times the rate of 40.1 recorded by Indigenous females.
  • Violent offences dominated the charge profiles of both genders. In 2005, Indigenous males were over four times more likely to be apprehended for a violent offence than for a property offence which, with a rate of 51.6 per 1,000 population, was the second most frequently recorded charge laid against this group. Indigenous females were twice as likely to be apprehended for violent offences than for property offences (21.6 per 1,000).
  • However, in proportionate terms, violent offences featured more prominently in the charge profiles of Indigenous males than in those of Indigenous females.
Table 9: Individuals apprehended by most serious violent offence recorded in 2005, by gender and Indigenous status, Western Australia (rates per 1,000 relevant population 10 years and over)
Offence type Males Females
Indigenous Non-Indigenous Indigenous Non-Indigenous
Homicide and related offences 0.9 0.1 0.2 <0.1
Acts intended to cause injury (ie assault) 96.8 4.5 30.5 0.7
Sexual assault and related offences 6.4 0.6 <0.1 0
Dangerous or negligent acts endangering persons (mainly dangerous operation of a vehicle) 29.4 2.9 9.3 0.4
Abduction and related offences 0.3 <0.1 0 0
Total violent offences 133.8 8.1 40.1 1.1

Source: Derived from Loh et al. 2007: Table 2.1

A breakdown of the specific types of violent offences charged against Indigenous males and females in Western Australia is presented in Table 9. Within each subcategory, the rate of apprehension for Indigenous males far exceeded that of Indigenous females. In relation to assault, the male rate (96.8 per 1,000) was 3.2 times as high as the female rate (30.5). Male rates were also 3.2 times that of the female rates for dangerous operation of a vehicle and a substantial 64 times as high for sexual assault.

When compared with Western Australia's non-Indigenous population (Table 9), Indigenous males were almost 17 times more likely to have a violent offence recorded as their most serious charge in 2005 than were non-Indigenous males (a rate of 133.7 per 1,000 compared with 8 per 1,000 non-Indigenous males). Inter-group differences were even more pronounced for females, with Indigenous females at least 35 times more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to be charged with a violent offence (40.1 per 1,000 population compared with 1.1 per 1,000 respectively).

Of particular note is the fact that, although within both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous group, male apprehension rates greatly exceeded female rates, this was not the case when comparing across groups. Instead, the violent offence rate for Indigenous females was five times as high as that of non-Indigenous males (40.1 versus 8). In relation to specific offences, the Indigenous female rate exceeded the non-Indigenous male rate for homicide, acts intended to cause injury and dangerous/negligent acts. One important exception was sexual offences, where the Indigenous female rate was slightly lower than the non-Indigenous male rate (<0.1 per 1,000 compared with 0.6 respectively). These results have important policy implications. There has been a tendency to focus responses and interventions on Indigenous males while paying less attention to the violent offending of Indigenous females. Yet these data suggest that the incidence and nature of violent behaviour by Indigenous females requires closer scrutiny.

Data from the NHMP reinforce this conclusion (see SCRGSP 2007). In 2004–05, a higher proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous homicides involved a female perpetrator (26% of 35 compared with 18% of 203 respectively) while conversely, the proportion involving a male perpetrator was lower (74% for Indigenous compared with 82% for non-Indigenous). The NHMP data also brings into question a common perception that most acts of violence by Indigenous males are directed against Indigenous females. In fact, of the 35 Indigenous homicides recorded in 2004–05, four in 10 (40%) involved males as both offender and victim, while only one in three (34%) comprised a male offender and a female victim. Overall, one-quarter of the Indigenous homicides (9 of 35) were perpetrated by women and of these, the majority were directed against male victims. This accords with anecdotal information from a Cape York Inquiry, which found that Indigenous women also engaged in violence, usually in retaliation for male spousal violence (Fitzgerald 2001).

Population survey data: The NATSIS and NATSISS

As was the case with police apprehension data, both the 1994 NATSIS and the 2002 NATSISS indicate higher levels of contact with the criminal justice system among Indigenous males than females.

While not specific to violent offenders, the 1994 survey indicated that, for Australia as a whole, more than three times as many males aged 13 years and over were arrested than were females in the preceding five years (32% compared with 9%). Males were also more likely than females to have experienced more than one apprehension during this period (19% compared with 12%; Mukherjee et al. 1998). These gender differences applied in all jurisdictions (see Table 10).

Table 10: Indigenous persons arrested at least once in the last 5 years, 1994 (%)
Jurisdiction Indigenous males Indigenous females
NSW 35 10
Vic 36 9
Qld 24 6
SA 38 19
WA 37 14
Tas 20 5
NT 32 7
Australia 32 9

Source: Mukherjee et al. 1998: Table 2.1, 4

The 2002 survey also pointed to a predominance of males, with almost one-quarter (24%) of Indigenous males aged 15 years and over indicating that they had been arrested at least once in the previous five years compared with nine percent of Indigenous females (ABS 2004).

Of the two surveys, only the NATSIS collected information on the type of offence for which individuals had been arrested. Interestingly, it showed that among Indigenous arrestees, a higher proportion of females than males were charged with an assault at the time of their most recent contact with police (19% compared with 16%). In contrast, a higher proportion of male than female arrestees (26% and 14% respectively) were charged with a drink driving offence. However, for both genders, disorderly conduct/public drinking were the most prominent, accounting for 31 percent of male and 38 percent of female arrests (Mukherjee et al. 1998).


Although males and females account for roughly equivalent proportions of the Indigenous population (49% and 51% respectively), they are not equally represented in the offending statistics, with Indigenous males substantially more likely to be apprehended than Indigenous females. The same gender differences are also evident within the non-Indigenous population.

Because the majority of data used to substantiate these gender variations relate not to actual offending behaviour, but to levels of contact with the criminal justice system, one possible explanation is that agents of that system, including police, show greater leniency towards females and so are more likely to either ignore their behaviour or to simply warn and caution them rather than laying formal charges against them. However, while this may apply to some of the less serious types of offending, it is unlikely to explain the large gender differences in apprehension rates for serious violent offences.

Explanations put forward to explain differences in male/female offending levels within the general Australian population are likely to apply within the Indigenous context. However, reasons specific to Indigenous persons have also been identified. Foremost among these is the argument that colonisation and its aftermath resulted in the marginalisation of Indigenous males. During the early days of settlement, Indigenous men were 'dispossessed of their roles as economic providers and ritual leaders' (Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001: 29) while at the same time, women's status was, at least in some areas, augmented by European settlers who brought them into their households as domestics and as sexual partners. This selective treatment towards women continued into the mid-twentieth century when, as the primary caregivers, they obtained access to supporting mothers' and widow's pensions, and child endowment. In contrast, males either had to find paid work or were forced to rely on unemployment benefits which, because they could be more easily be terminated if certain job-search requirements were not met, provided a less tenuous form of income. As caregivers, Indigenous women (particularly those living in urban centres) were also more likely to have access to housing. This gave them an important power base within the community, while men were either forced into a position of dependency or were displaced from the household entirely. As one commentator has noted, '[w]omen with children were better off financially without an obvious male partner, and younger single mothers were better off financially not getting married at all' (Fitzgerald 2001: vol 2: 17). This displacement of males, it is argued, resulted in a range of dysfunctional behaviours, including alcohol misuse and offending. In turn, greater involvement in crime, together with higher levels of arrest and imprisonment, further contributed to the alienation of males from their family and community.

The displacement of Indigenous men is reflected in the large percentage of Indigenous households which, at least in the recent past, did not have an adult male present. A survey of Aboriginal families living in Adelaide in the early 1980s found that, of those women who were married or living in a stable defacto relationship, over four in 10 (44%) had a non-Indigenous partner. In comparison, only 23 percent of males in a current relationship had a non-Indigenous partner (Gale & Wundersitz 1982). In addition, of the 377 adults interviewed for whom parental details were available, over one-quarter (27%) indicated that they had a non-Indigenous father, while only six percent had a non-Indigenous mother. This led to the conclusion that

Aboriginal women have always been more able to establish relationships with non-Aboriginal partners than have the males…[and] this has significantly contributed to [Aboriginal male] alienation from the household and the family (Gale & Wundersitz 1982: 38).

The same situation has been observed in many other Indigenous communities across Australia. For example, in Cape York during the 1960s and 1970s

most community households had no male figurehead, and middle aged men were evicted with no home to go to, moving from relative to relative, a large floating population of aimless and rootless individuals, easy prey to violence and alcohol (Fitzgerald 2001 vol 2: 17).

While the link between loss of status/displacement of Indigenous males and their involvement in violent behaviour has yet to be empirically tested, anecdotal evidence suggests that violence may be an 'acting out of anger by men in response to their diminished power and sense of powerlessness' (Hunter 1990: 274). Or it may reflect 'men's compensation for lack of status, esteem and value' (Blagg 2000: 3). This may be true even in urban settings such as Adelaide, where it was observed that

Many Aboriginal men have lost both their status and their self-respect. The path now followed by so many of the men, from hotel to gaol, is but an inevitable consequence of their loss of status and purpose in society (Gale 1978: 2).

This may be particularly true for certain types of violence such as child sexual abuse. One Aboriginal informant, for example, argued that 'the sexual abuse of Indigenous children has its origins in the breakdown of traditional laws and men's roles, especially those relating to the community protection of women and children' (Phillips 1996).

Whether due to marginalisation or other factors, males are more likely than females to exhibit at least some of the characteristics identified as risk factors for violence. Pre-eminent among these is the significantly greater levels of alcohol misuse by Indigenous males. To cite just some of the evidence for this, the 2002 NATSISS found that males were significantly more likely to engage in high risk alcohol consumption than females (17% compared with 13% respectively; ABS 2004). Similarly, the 2004–05 NATSIHS indicated that long-term risky/high risk alcohol consumption was more prominent among Indigenous men than women (20% compared with 14%). This applied across all age groups, with the exception of those aged 55 years and over, where the rates for both groups were relatively similar (SCRGSP 2007). Levels of alcohol misuse among males are even higher in some locations, as indicated by a 1987 study of five ex-reserve communities in Queensland, which found that almost two-thirds of men engaged in heavy, very heavy or binge drinking compared with only 30 percent of women (Smithson et al. 1991).

Because of their more secure social position within Indigenous communities, females may also be better equipped to deal with personal stressors without resorting to dysfunctional behaviour. According to the NATSISS, for example, they are more likely than Indigenous males to have access to informal, family-based support networks in times of crisis (ABS 2002).

Yet females are not entirely risk-free. In 2002, they were more likely than males to live in dwellings that have structural problems, have lower incomes and experience greater financial stress. Moreover, in that year, one-half of this group was classified as 'not in the workforce' compared with one in three Indigenous males (30%), with the majority of these women probably in receipt of a social security pension. The amount of income received would therefore be very low which, when combined with their greater responsibilities as heads of often very large households containing numerous dependent children, may help to explain their higher levels of financial stress (56% compared with 52% of Indigenous males; ABS 2002).

Their relatively high exposure to potential risk factors for violence may also help to explain why Indigenous female apprehension rates often exceed those of non-Indigenous males.

Age profiles

As with gender, age has long been recognised as a risk factor for offending within the general population, with the likelihood of involvement in criminal activity starting to increase from about the age of 14 or 15 years, reaching a peak during the mid 20s and early 30s and then diminishing from the mid to late 30s onwards. This age profile also characterises Indigenous violent offenders.

Apprehensions: Western Australia

Western Australian apprehension data (Figure 8) show that the majority of Indigenous persons apprehended for a violent offence in 2005 were either aged 18 to 25 years (29%) or 26 to 33 years (28%) In contrast, only about one in 10 fell within the youngest and oldest age groupings depicted.

Because the age brackets used to extract the apprehension data do not accord with published ABS age categories, it is not possible to calculate accurate offending rates. However, broad comparisons with population figures for those aged 10 years and over indicate that:

  • The youngest and oldest age groups were underrepresented in the apprehension data. Juveniles aged 10 to 17 years inclusive accounted for one-quarter of the Indigenous population in Western Australia but only 10 percent of all Indigenous persons apprehended for a violent offence. Those aged 40 years and over made up 30 percent of the Indigenous population whereas only 12 percent of violent offenders fell within the roughly equivalent age group of 42 years and over.
  • In contrast, those in the mid-ranges were overrepresented compared with their relative population sizes. Those aged 18–24 years and 25–34 years accounted for 16 percent and 19 percent of the Indigenous population in Western Australia, whereas 29 percent and 28 percent of persons apprehended for a violent offence fell within the roughly similar age ranges of 18–25 years and 26–33 years respectively.
  • The 35–39 year age group was the most overrepresented, accounting for only nine percent of the population but 21 percent of the roughly age-equivalent apprehension group.

The age profiles of Indigenous persons apprehended by police in 2005 were broadly similar to those of non-Indigenous apprehendees (see Figure 8), although the latter recorded a higher proportion in the peak 18–25 year category and in the oldest age bracket of 42 years and over. Conversely, a lower proportion of non-Indigenous than Indigenous offenders were aged less than 18 years. To some extent, these differences reflect variations in the age structures of the two population groups. In particular, the non-Indigenous population has fewer young people (7% compared with 25% of the Indigenous population) and markedly older people (52% compared with 30% of the Indigenous population).

There is some evidence from the WA data that the age profiles of Indigenous offenders vary depending on the type of violence involved. A comparison between Indigenous persons apprehended for physical and sexual assault in 2005 indicates that, although those in the mid age ranges of 18–25 years and 26–33 years were still the most dominant, individuals charged with a sexual offence tended to be somewhat older than those charged with physical assault. Just over four in 10 (42%) of those apprehended for an assault were aged 25 years or under compared with three in 10 (29%) of those charged with a sexual offence. Conversely, 30 percent of assault offenders were aged 34 years and over, compared with 41 percent of sexual offenders (Loh et al. 2007). While these differences may reflect variations in actual offending behaviour from one age group to another, factors such as age variations in the victim's willingness to report a matter to police may also play a role.

Apprehensions: South Australia

Despite differences in counting rules, the age profile of Indigenous persons apprehended for violent offences in South Australia in 2006 was similar to that observed in Western Australia. Persons aged 18–24 years and 25–34 years dominated and in combination, accounted for 59 percent of all Indigenous charges laid by police that year. This pattern applied irrespective of the type of violence involved. Almost six in 10 assaults occasioning actual or grievous bodily harm charges (58%) were allegedly committed by persons in these two age brackets, as were 60 percent of common assault charges and 54 percent of sexual offences. The main difference was the higher proportion of sexual offenders (15%) who fell within the 45 years and over age bracket compared with either assault occasioning (7%) or common assault (7%). Again, this mirrors trends in Western Australia (OCSAR 2007).

Figure 8: Persons apprehended for a violent offence by Indigenous status and age (years), Western Australia, 2005 (%)

Persons apprehended for a violent offence by Indigenous status and age (years), Western Australia 2005

Note: Each person apprehended in 2005 is counted once, irrespective of the number of apprehensions or the number of charges laid that year. Only those whose most serious charge in 2005 was a violent offence are included

Source: Broadhurst et al. 1988: 94

The dominance of the 18–24 year and 25–34 year age range is illustrated clearly in Figure 9, which details the rates of charging per age category. As shown, charge rates among 18–24 and 25–34 year olds were extremely high. These same two age groups also dominated the charge profiles of non-Indigenous offenders but across each of the categories depicted, Indigenous rates per 1,000 age-specific population were higher and often substantially higher than non-Indigenous rates. For example, charge rates among Indigenous offenders aged 18–24 years and 25–34 years (157.1 and 158.6 per 1,000 population respectively) were 12 and 14 times as high as those of non-Indigenous offenders in these two age brackets (13.4 and 11.0 per 1,000 non-Indigenous age-specific population respectively). Charge rates among Indigenous persons aged 45–59 years and 60 years and over were also substantially greater than the charge rate for non-Indigenous persons in these age categories.

Figure 9: Violent offence charges by age (years) and Indigenous status, South Australia, 2006 (rate per 1,000 relevant population 10 years and over)

Violent offence charges by age (years) and Indigenous status, South Australia 2006

Note: All charges laid in 2006 are counted, irrespective of the number of discrete persons charged or the number of apprehension reports lodged

Source: OCSAR 2007: Table 6.14

Population survey data: The NATSIS and NATSISS

Results from the NATSIS support the conclusion that Indigenous persons aged 18–24 years and 25–34 years have the highest risk of contact with police for a violent offence, while those in the younger and older age brackets have a lower risk. Of all male respondents aged 18–24 years and 25–34 years, eight percent in each category indicated that they had been arrested for assault on the occasion of their most recent contact with police. In contrast, fewer than one percent of juveniles and two percent of older respondents aged 44 years and over listed assault as the reason for their most recent arrest. While figures were generally much lower for Indigenous females, the patterns were the same, with three percent of those in the two mid-age ranges reporting that they had been arrested for assault compared with only 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent of those in the youngest and oldest age brackets respectively (Hunter 2001: 12).

Although the 2002 NATSISS did not provide any specific data on violent offenders, age breakdowns for all persons arrested by police (irrespective of the charge) were relatively similar to those described above.


For Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons alike, those aged between 18 and 34 years had a higher risk of being apprehended for a violent offence than other age groups. Nevertheless, Indigenous violent apprehension rates were consistently higher than non-Indigenous rates across all age categories, thereby indicating that factors other than differences in population age profiles are operative.

Explanations put forward to explain the overrepresentation of 18–34 year old offenders (particularly male offenders) within the general population—for example, that those in this age group is more likely to be risk-takers, to engage in social activities that potentially expose them to risky situations, such as one-on-one male fighting in public places, and lower levels of emotional and psychological maturity (Bryant & Willis 2008), are also likely to apply to Indigenous offenders.

Violent offending by juveniles

Within the general community, research indicates that those individuals who start offending at a young age face a much greater risk of escalating to more frequent and more serious offending as they move into adulthood. This has led to the implementation of a range of intervention strategies designed to break the cycle of offending among juveniles before it becomes entrenched. While Indigenous-specific data are relatively limited, evidence suggests that offending is not only more prevalent among young Indigenous persons, but commences at an earlier age compared with non-Indigenous youths. A SA study of a cohort of young people born in 1984 (Skrzypiec & Wundersitz 2005) found that:

  • A much higher proportion of the Indigenous than the non-Indigenous birth cohort were apprehended at least once during their juvenile years (44% compared with 16% respectively).
  • This pattern applied to both males and females. Almost two-thirds (63%) of Indigenous males in the 1984 birth cohort were apprehended at least once between the ages of 10 and 17 years inclusive, compared with less than one-quarter of non-Indigenous males (24%). Similarly, one-quarter (27%) of Indigenous females were apprehended compared with only seven percent of non-Indigenous females.
  • Interestingly, however, the proportion of Indigenous females in the 1984 birth cohort who were apprehended at least once as juveniles (24%) was slightly higher than that recorded by the non-Indigenous male cohort (22%).
  • One in 10 of the Indigenous cohort had experienced their first apprehension by the age of 12 years (compared with less than 1 in 100 of the non-Indigenous birth cohort) while one-third (32%) had been apprehended by the age of 15 years (compared with less than 10% of non-Indigenous youth).

Unfortunately, no data were provided on the types of offending involved. However, other inquiries into Indigenous violence have pointed to relatively high levels of violent offending among adolescents. An NT inquiry was informed that Indigenous children were becoming increasingly unruly, disrespectful and lawless. It was told that in many communities, 'the younger generations were living in anarchy, associated with rampant promiscuity and violence' (Wild & Anderson 2007: 63). The Inquiry drew particular attention to child-on-child sexual abuse, which it attributed to the combined effects of intergenerational trauma, the breakdown of cultural restraints and the fact that many, if not all, of these child offenders had themselves been victims of sexual abuse and/or had witnessed inappropriate sexual behaviour from an early age (Wild & Anderson 2007). Similarly, the APY Lands Inquiry documented numerous cases of children, some as young as five, acting out inappropriate sexual behaviours and abusing other children (Mullighan 2008). In the Cairns police district (incorporating the Cape York Indigenous communities), the sex offence rate among males aged 10–14 years was 1.4 times higher than the Queensland average, while among 15–19 year olds, it was three times higher (Fitzgerald 2001).

What then, do official apprehension data indicate about the nature and level of violent offending among Indigenous juveniles compared with Indigenous adult offenders and with non-Indigenous juveniles?

Indigenous youth compared with Indigenous adults

WA apprehension data for 2005 (Loh et al. 2007) showed that:

  • A relatively high proportion (26%) of Indigenous juveniles apprehended by police had a violent offence listed as their most serious charge that year.
  • However, they were far more likely to be charged with a property than a violent offence, with this category featuring as the major charge laid against four in 10 Indigenous juveniles apprehended that year.
  • These patterns were different from those observed for Indigenous adults, a higher proportion of who were charged with a violent offence (40%) than a property offence (11%).
  • Indigenous adults were also more likely than Indigenous juveniles to be charged with offences against public order (11% compared with 5%), driving/traffic (12% compared with 4%) and 'against justice' procedures (12% compared with 5%).
  • An analysis of the different types of violent offences listed against Indigenous juveniles points to the overwhelming preponderance of assaultive behaviour. This offence type constituted the most serious charge laid against 88 percent of those Indigenous juveniles apprehended in Western Australia for a violent offence in 2005, whereas sexual assaults accounted for only six percent (Loh et al. 2007). Again, however, it should be stressed that these data relate not to actual behaviour but to contact with the criminal justice system.

Indigenous youth compared with non-Indigenous youth

SA data for 2005 indicate that, on a per capita basis, Indigenous juveniles faced a much higher risk of being apprehended across most violent offence categories than non-Indigenous youth. The former were 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous youths to be charged with common assault (26.3 per 1,000 Indigenous juvenile population compared with 2.6 per 1,000 non-Indigenous juvenile population), six times more likely to be charged with serious assault (4.1 and 0.7 per 1,000 respectively) and two times more likely to be charged with a sexual assault (1.2 compared with 0.5; derived from OCSAR 2006).

Of interest though is the fact that while Indigenous rates are consistently higher, in proportionate terms, the types of charges laid against those Indigenous young people who do engage in violence is slightly different compared with their non-Indigenous counterparts. While the most common offence of violence charged against both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youths was common assault, it featured more prominently in the charge profiles of Indigenous youth (being listed as the major charge in 77% of Indigenous violent apprehensions compared with 64% of non-Indigenous violent apprehensions). In contrast, proportionately fewer Indigenous than non-Indigenous youths were charged with serious assault (12% compared with 16%) or a sexual offence (4% compared with 12% respectively). Similar findings emerged from Western Australia, where proportionately more Indigenous than non-Indigenous youths apprehended for violence in 2005 were charged with acts intended to cause injury (ie assault) while proportionately fewer were charged with sexual assault. The figures were 88 percent and 68 percent respectively for assaults and six percent compared with nine percent respectively for sexual offences (Loh et al. 2007). In other words, these figures suggest that Indigenous youths are more likely to be charged with a violent offence in the first place, but those who are charged are more likely to be involved in the potentially less serious forms of violence (namely common assault) than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander identity

That there may be some difference between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in terms of their level of contact with the criminal justice system is indicated by the 2002 NATSISS, which found that Aboriginal respondents aged 15 years and over were more likely to have been arrested by police in the previous five years (20%) than Torres Strait Islanders (15%; ABS 2002). No data specific to violent offenders were available.

This disparity may be due to different levels of exposure to various risk factors for violence faced by the two groups. According to the NATSISS, while both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people shared a number of features in common (eg a similar proportion in both population groups were able to obtain support in a time of crisis, had experienced at least one stressor in the preceding 12 months including financial stress and had similar health standards), there were other areas where Aboriginal persons seemed to be more disadvantaged. For example, this group had:

  • lower educational standards, with one-third achieving no more than Year 9 at school, compared with one-quarter of Torres Strait Islanders;
  • lower levels of both Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) and non-CDEP employment;
  • lower levels of home ownership (27% compared with 31%) and higher levels of rental accommodation;
  • higher levels of structural problems with their current dwellings (40% and 33% respectively) indicating poorer housing conditions; and
  • higher levels of childhood removal either of themselves or a relative from the family unit (39% compared with 25%; ABS 2002).

If education, employment and housing standards are, in fact, significant risk factors for offending behaviour, this could help to explain at least some of the difference in offending between these two groups. However, far more data are required to tease out this potential link between Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander identity and violence.

Alcohol misuse

Community levels of alcohol use

Alcohol has been present in many Indigenous communities since the early days of European settlement when it was often used as a tool by non-Indigenous persons to manipulate or exploit Indigenous people. It was used historically by some employers as currency in lieu of wages, as a bribe by 'white' settlers to obtain sex from Indigenous women and as a lure to attract Indigenous people into missions and reserves (Wild & Anderson 2007; Keel 2004). During the many decades when Indigenous people were prohibited from buying alcohol themselves, they were still able to purchase it illegally from unscrupulous 'white' people, including publicans. However, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s, with the repeal of the various state Aboriginal Acts that had banned the sale of alcohol to Indigenous people, that consumption started to escalate (Fitzgerald 2001; Hunter 1990) to the point where it is now regarded as one of the most important risk factors for violence in Indigenous communities. It has been variously observed that 'substance abuse has reached epidemic proportions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities' (Coorey 2001: 88) and that 'obtaining alcohol, its consumption, and dealing with its consequences, have increasingly become core activities around which much of Aboriginal economic, social and politician life revolves' (Fitzgerald 2001: vol 2: 55).

However, contrary to popular belief, the proportion of Indigenous persons who consume alcohol is actually lower than that of the Australian population. A 1994 survey of 3,000 Indigenous people living in urban areas of Australia (National Drug Strategy Household Survey's (NDSHS) Urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Supplement Survey; see Hennessy & Williams 2001) found that approximately 88 percent of Indigenous Australians had consumed alcohol at some point in their lives, which was lower than the 94 percent recorded for the general population. Some 10 years later, the 2004–05 NATSIHS and the National Health Survey revealed that, after adjusting for age differences, a higher proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous adult respondents had either never consumed alcohol (11% compared with 9% respectively) or had not consumed alcohol in the week prior to being interviewed (42% compared with 27%; SCRGSP 2007). And more recently, the 2007 NDSHS noted that 77 percent of Indigenous persons aged 14 years and over were 'non abstainers', compared with the higher figure of 83 percent of non-Indigenous Australians.

The crucial difference though, is that those Indigenous Australians who do consume alcohol are more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to engage in hazardous or harmful levels of drinking. Again, these patterns have remained relatively consistent over recent decades:

  • The 1994 NDSHS Urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Supplement found that over eight in 10 Indigenous drinkers consumed alcohol at either hazardous or harmful levels, irrespective of age or gender (see Hennessy & Williams 2001). Among female drinkers, 90 percent of those aged 14–24 years engaged in hazardous or harmful levels of drinking, as did 80 percent of those aged 25 and over. Among male drinkers, 79 per cent of 14–24 year olds were hazardous or harmful alcohol users, as were 83 percent of those aged 25 and over (hazardous levels were defined as five to six drinks for males and three to four drinks for females, while harmful levels were set at more than six drinks for males and more than four drinks for females).
  • A decade later, in 2004, levels remained high, with 70 percent of Indigenous male and 67 percent of Indigenous female alcohol consumers identified by the NDSHS drinking at levels that placed them at high risk of harm. These figures were over six times greater than those recorded by non-Indigenous respondents, among whom only 10 percent of male and 11 percent of female alcohol users were classified as high risk consumers.

The NATSIHS also revealed higher levels of 'binge' drinking among the two groups (defined as the consumption of seven or more standard drinks for males and five or more for females at any one 'sitting'). Age standardised results indicated that 47 percent of Indigenous adult respondents engaged in binge drinking at least once in the 12 months prior to the interview, while 17 percent engaged in such drinking at least once per week over that period. Corresponding figures for non-Indigenous respondents were much lower (40% and 8% respectively; SCRGSP 2007).

While the above data apply at a national level, some state-specific information on Indigenous levels of risk/high risk consumption during the preceding 12 months showed only minor regional variations. Five states—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia—had relatively similar levels of risky Indigenous drinking (varying from 15.5% to 17.5% of those surveyed by NATSISS). Figures for Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory were consistently, but not significantly, lower than the national average of 15.1%. Only the Northern Territory recorded levels of risky to high risk alcohol consumption among Indigenous respondents (9.1%) that were significantly, lower than the national average—a finding which seems to be at odds with popular stereotypes of the Northern Territory (ABS 2002).

Nor is there any evidence of marked variations in risky/high risk alcohol consumption between Indigenous persons living in remote and non-remote areas. Data from the 2002 NATSISS (ABS 2002) found that, during the preceding 12 months, 10 percent of remote respondents engaged in risky alcohol consumption compared with nine percent in non-remote areas, while seven percent and five percent respectively engaged in high risk alcohol consumption. However, there were differences between the two groups in terms of non-consumers and low level risky consumers. Whereas remote Indigenous residents were more likely than non-remote residents to be non-consumers (46% compared with 24%), the reverse was true for low risk consumers (32% of remote compared with 51% of non-remote residents).

The grouping of Indigenous communities into either remote or non-remote may, however, obscure important regional and subregional differences, with some locations likely to record risky alcohol consumption levels well above the state or national averages. For example, a survey of Cape York communities between 1998 and 1999 found that three-quarters of the male respondents (74%) and over four in 10 female respondents (44%) had consumed alcohol in the week preceding the survey. Of those consuming alcohol, 83 percent of males and 84 percent of females admitted to drinking at levels defined as harmful (Fitzgerald 2001).

The consequences of such high risk alcohol consumption for Indigenous persons, families and communities have been well documented (see Bryant & Willis 2008 for an overview).

Alcohol misuse and violence

Alcohol misuse is now widely regarded as one of, if not the, main risk factor for Indigenous violence. As early as the 1990s, Hunter (1990: 273) drew attention to the link between the greater access to alcohol that occurred in the 1970s and the subsequent increase in Indigenous violence. He noted that 'children and young people who were currently engaging in self-destructive behaviour were the first generation to have grown up in an environment where heavy drinking and significant family violence were common'. A similar link between escalating Indigenous violence and the removal of alcohol restrictions was observed by a Cape York Inquiry: 'There is no doubt that the introduction of liquor to Aboriginal communities presaged the end of the relative “quiet” of mission days and fostered an upsurge in alcohol-related violence', with harmful levels of alcohol consumption now being 'the chief precursor to violence, crime, injury and ill health in these communities' (Fitzgerald 2001: vol 2: 25, 40).

Empirical evidence for a link between alcohol and violent offending can be derived from population and offender surveys as well as from official criminal justice data.

National population surveys

A national survey of urban-dwelling Indigenous Australians (NDSHS Urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Supplement of 1994; see Hennessy & Williams 2001) found that over one-quarter of Indigenous respondents (27%) admitted committing alcohol-related verbal abuse (36% of males and 21% of females) while 18 percent admitted responsibility for alcohol-related physical assaults (24% of males and 13% of females). In contrast, alcohol seemed to be a less relevant factor in either property damage or property theft. Overall, 13 percent of respondents admitted to involvement in alcohol-related property damage (18% of males and 9% of females) while eight percent indicated they had committed alcohol-related property theft (13% of males and 4% of females).

The survey also found that the likelihood of committing an alcohol-related offence increased as the level of alcohol consumption increased (Hennessy & Williams 2001). As shown in Table 11, of those Indigenous respondents who reported drinking at harmful levels (ie at levels known to cause brain damage and mental illness), almost one-half admitted to committing alcohol-related verbal abuse, while one in three had committed an alcohol-related assault. Low risk consumers were less likely to perpetrate these offences (with 17% admitting to alcohol-related verbal abuse and 10% to alcohol-related assault).

Table 11: Alcohol-related offending by level of alcohol consumption for urban Indigenous persons, NDSHS 1994 (%)
Alcohol-related offenceRisk level of alcohol consumption
Low riskHazardousHarmful
Verbal abuse 17 25 46
Physical abuse 10 16 30
Property damage 6 11 20
Property theft 3 3 12

Source: Hennessy & Williams 2001: 155

Not only did alcohol consumption increase the risk of committing an alcohol-related offence, but it also increased the risk of becoming a victim of such an offence. As Table 12 shows, of those individuals who had perpetrated alcohol-related physical abuse:

  • over seven in 10 (72%) had been the victim of alcohol-related verbal abuse; and
  • two-thirds (66%) had been the victim of alcohol-related physical abuse.

Similarly high levels of violent victimisation were reported by those who admitted committing alcohol-related property damage and property theft, with four percent and 65 percent of offenders in these two categories indicating they had been the victims of physical abuse. This suggests that, irrespective of the type of offence involved, Indigenous persons who engage in alcohol-related crime are themselves likely to be the victims of such offences.

Table 12: Relationship between victimisation and perpetration of alcohol-related offending for urban Indigenous persons, NDSHS 1994 (%)
Victim of alcohol-related offencePerpetrator of alcohol-related offence
Verbal abusePhysical abuseProperty damageProperty theft
Verbal abuse 68 72 69 67
Physical abuse 60 66 64 65
Property damage 58 61 73 70
Property theft 45 51 58 68

Source: Hennessy & Williams 2001: 155

More recent data on alcohol-related violence derived from the 2004 NDSHS also found that a higher proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous respondents admitted to verbal or physical abuse while under the influence of alcohol. Among Indigenous respondents, 18 percent were involved in alcohol-related verbal abuse while five percent admitted to alcohol-related physical abuse. Corresponding figures for non-Indigenous respondents were much lower (6% and 7% respectively; Al Yaman, Van Deland & Wallis 2006).

The 2002 NATSISS provides further evidence of a link between alcohol use and an increased risk of contact with police. It found that those Indigenous respondents who had been charged by police at some stage in their lives were over two times more likely to report being risky to high risk users of alcohol than those who had never been charged (24% compared with 11% respectively; ABS 2002). Further analysis of the same data set (Weatherburn, Snowball & Hunter 2006) showed that, among respondents living in non-remote areas, the risk of being arrested increased as the level of alcohol consumption increased. Among those who had not consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months, only one-quarter (26%) had been arrested by police compared with 39 percent of low risk alcohol consumers, 50 percent of medium risk consumers and 61 percent of high risk consumers (Weatherburn, Snowball & Hunter 2006). However, these results are limited in that they only measure an individual's self-reported contact with the criminal justice system rather than their actual offending behaviour and are not specific to violent offenders.

Offender-based surveys

The relatively few offender-based surveys so far undertaken in Australia consistently indicate much higher levels of alcohol use among Indigenous than non-Indigenous offenders brought into contact with the criminal justice system. For example, a survey of women in Western Australian jails in 2005 found that Indigenous female respondents were almost twice as likely to admit being under the influence of alcohol or another drug at the time of the offence than were non-Indigenous female respondents (73% compared with 39% respectively; Department of Corrective Services Western Australia 2006). While these findings were not specific to women imprisoned for a violent offence, it is worth noting that over one-third (37%) of the Indigenous women surveyed were serving a sentence for homicide, assault, sexual assault or some other violent offence, compared with one-quarter (26%) of the non-Indigenous women.

A recent study of male and female offenders serving a community supervision order in Queensland found that over one-half of the Indigenous males surveyed (53%) were assessed as being alcohol dependent compared with only one in three non-Indigenous males (30%). Levels of alcohol dependency among Indigenous females was very similar to that of non-Indigenous males (just under 30%) but were 1.5 times as high as the levels recorded by non-Indigenous females (just over 20%; Mazerolle & Legosz 2007). Interestingly, this survey also found that these offenders were exposed to high levels of alcohol-related aggression by their partners. This was particularly true for Indigenous women. Of those who were in a relationship, two-thirds indicated they had been subjected to alcohol-related partner aggression, compared with less than half of the non-Indigenous women (46%). While levels were generally lower for male respondents, over 40 percent of Indigenous males who had a partner had been subjected to alcohol-related aggression by that individual. Again, this was higher than that of their non-Indigenous counterparts, 30 percent of whom reported being the victim of alcohol-related partner aggression.

Alcohol use was also higher among Indigenous than non-Indigenous adult male and female offenders interviewed as part of DUCO and DUMA. Although the findings were not specific to violent offenders, a relatively high percentage of these individuals were either currently charged, with or had previously been dealt with, for a violent offence. More specifically:

  • Of those women prisoners surveyed in six Australian jurisdictions in 2003 as part of DUCO (Johnson 2004):
  • Nearly one in three of these Indigenous women (28%) were incarcerated for assault while one in 10 (11%) were imprisoned for murder or a related offence;
  • They had a lengthy history of assaultive behaviour, with 73 percent indicating they had 'ever' committed an assault (compared with 40% of non-Indigenous women) and 16 percent noting that they regularly committed assaults (compared with only 5% of non-Indigenous women); and
  • Having perpetrated their first assault, almost one-quarter (22%) escalated to committing assaults on a regular basis (compared with only 13% of non-Indigenous women).
  • Of the Indigenous males surveyed as part of DUCO sample, 58 percent were imprisoned for a violent offence, 72 percent admitted that they had previously committed a physical assault and 16 percent did so on a regular basis.
  • Of the DUMA adult male sample, 28 percent of Indigenous respondents were being detained for a violent offence.

Given these relatively high levels of violence, an analysis of the drug use patterns of these two groups is relevant here.

The survey of adult female prisoners found that:

  • Over two-thirds of Indigenous women (68%) reported regular alcohol use in the six months prior to arrest compared with just over one-third (37%) of non-Indigenous women.
  • The proportion who were dependent on alcohol only was higher among Indigenous than non-Indigenous women (31% compared with 6%).
  • Indigenous women were almost four times more likely to report that they were under the influence of alcohol at the time the offence was committed (60% compared with 16% of non-Indigenous women) and were 12 times more likely to attribute their current offence to alcohol only (24% of Indigenous compared with 2% of non-Indigenous women) rather than to other illicit drugs.

The two surveys of adult male offenders (see Putt, Payne & Milner 2005)—one focused on persons arrested by police (DUMA) and the other on adult male prisoners (DUCO)—indicated that:

  • A significantly higher proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous respondents in both groups had recently used alcohol, although usage was much higher among prisoners than police detainees. Nine in 10 Indigenous prisoners (90%) and six in 10 Indigenous police detainees (59%) reported recent alcohol use, which was 1.2 and 1.5 times as high as usage levels among non-Indigenous prisoners and detainees (76% and 50% respectively).
  • Among Indigenous respondents, alcohol was listed as the drug most frequently used at the time of their most recent offending (DUCO) or arrest (DUMA). Of those who actually reported drug use on this occasion, alcohol was cited by 69 percent of Indigenous DUCO and 43 percent of Indigenous DUMA respondents. These levels were much higher than those reported by non-Indigenous drug-using DUCO and DUMA respondents, with only 27 percent and 28 percent respectively listing alcohol as the drug most frequently used at the time of their recent offending/arrest.
  • Of those respondents who reported recent use of alcohol, a significantly higher proportion of Indigenous (42% DUCO; 25% DUMA) than non-Indigenous (19% DUCO; 17% DUMA) males indicated they were dependent on it.
  • Within the DUMA sample, nearly twice as many Indigenous than non-Indigenous respondents directly attributed their offending to alcohol consumption. Among DUCO respondents:
  • Ten percent of Indigenous prisoners, compared with four percent of non-Indigenous prisoners, attributed their offending to alcohol addiction, either by itself or in combination with an illicit drug; and
  • Twenty-five percent of Indigenous prisoners (compared with only 5% of non-Indigenous prisoners) regarded alcohol intoxication as the cause of that offending. A further 14 percent of Indigenous respondents implicated both alcohol and illicit drug intoxication (compared with 6% of non-Indigenous respondents). In combination then, alcohol was directly cited as a causative factor in their most recent offending by 43 percent of Indigenous prisoners, which was 3.3 times as high as that of non-Indigenous respondents (13%).

A link between alcohol consumption and violent offending was also found among juvenile detainees surveyed as part of DUCO (Prichard & Payne 2005), with results indicating that both regular violent and regular property offenders were three times more likely to be regular users of alcohol than non-regular offenders. However, when Indigenous status was taken into account, the survey found slightly lower levels of alcohol use among Indigenous than non-Indigenous detainees (43% compared with 50% respectively). This is quite contrary to the trends observed among adult male and female prisoners.

Criminal justice data

Very little insight into the link between alcohol abuse and Indigenous violence can be derived from criminal justice databases because they generally do not record information on the personal characteristics of offenders other than sex and age. One exception is the NHMP derived from police apprehension data, which showed that, from 1999–2000 to 2004–05 (SCRGSP 2007):

  • In 70 percent of Indigenous homicides (ie those that involved both an Indigenous victim and an Indigenous perpetrator), both parties had consumed alcohol at the time of the offence, compared with only 20 percent of non-Indigenous homicides.
  • Inter-group differences were less pronounced for those homicides where only the offender was under the influence of alcohol at the time (11% of Indigenous compared with 9% of non-Indigenous homicides).
  • There has been a significant decrease in recent years in Indigenous homicides involving alcohol consumption by both the victim and offender (from 72% in 1999–2000 to 59% in 2004–05).

At a regional level, an inquiry into Cape York communities found that alcohol-related offending accounted for 45 percent of all offences recorded by police (Fitzgerald 2001). In addition, of those Cape York offenders imprisoned during the period 1998–99 to 2000–01 for an offence against the person, 46 percent indicated they were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the offence, while a further 28 percent were reportedly under the influence of illicit drugs. Relatively high levels of alcohol use were also observed among Cape York individuals serving a community service order during the same period, with 39 percent of those sentenced for violence stating they were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the offence. Although these data also included non-Indigenous offenders resident in the Cape York area, most persons living in this region were Indigenous.

Indigenous status as a predictor of alcohol-related offending

The studies described above detail the proportion of Indigenous offenders who committed alcohol-related crimes. A different approach was taken by Carcach and Conroy (2001). Using 10 years of data (July 1989 to June 1999) from the NHMP, they sought to identify whether Indigenous status was predictive of alcohol-related offending when the effects of other variables had been controlled for. Alcohol-related homicides were defined as those incidents where, according to police, alcohol precipitated the offence. Homicides where the victim, the offender or both had been drinking at the time but where there was no evidence to suggest that this drinking had contributed to the violence were excluded.

Of the 3,009 homicides analysed, 138 involved an Indigenous offender. Of these, just under one-third (30%) were alcohol related. In contrast, only 10 percent of non-Indigenous homicides were alcohol related. When a range of factors, such as the age and relationship of the victim and the time and location of the incident were held constant, analysis indicated that homicides involving a Caucasian offender were 64 times less likely to involve alcohol as a precipitating factor than homicides involving an Indigenous offender or offenders of other racial appearance (Carcach & Conroy 2001). This difference was statistically significant. The study also found an interaction effect between the racial appearance of the victim and that of the offender. Incidents involving a non-Caucasian offender but a Caucasian victim were 1.2 times more likely to be alcohol related than those incidents where both victim and offender were Caucasian. Incidents involving non-Caucasians as both victims and offenders were 2.9 times more likely to be alcohol related than those involving a Caucasian offender and a non-Caucasian victim. The authors therefore concluded that the likelihood of an alcohol-related homicide was higher in those cases where either the victim or offender or both were non-Caucasian (Carcach & Conroy 2001).


Various explanations have been put forward for the observed link between high levels of alcohol consumption and violence in Indigenous communities. Many of these are also applicable to non-Indigenous offending. They include the following.

  • The pharmacological effects of alcohol impair judgment and remove those social inhibitions that may otherwise prevent an individual from becoming violent. What are normally considered appropriate behavioural standards are ignored and high levels of alcohol use allow people to express feelings that would otherwise be suppressed. In those situations where traditional customs or rules of conduct have been suspended, long-running grievances may come to the surface and lead to conflict between individuals and between larger groups within the community, which often divide along kin or family lines (Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001).
  • Harmful levels of alcohol use can lead to tissue damage and neurological dependency. It may also trigger or exacerbate psychological and emotional problems in the individual (such as poor anger management), as well as various forms of mental illness, such as antisocial personality and bipolar disorder.
  • Alcohol may be part of the individual's social and cultural learning environment. It has been argued that those persons who grow up in settings where there are high levels of alcohol and violence may come to regard the two behaviours as inextricably linked. The expectation that aggression is a normal mode of behaviour 'may result in community tolerance of violent behaviour by persons under the influence of alcohol' and a tendency to excuse such behaviour on the grounds that the individual 'does not know what he/she is doing' (Bolger 1991: 95). Excusing individuals who engage in alcohol-related violence means that they are not held accountable for their actions. There is, therefore, no incentive to desist from such behaviour (D'Abbs et al. 1993).
  • Numerous writers have pointed to the intergenerational nature of the alcohol abuse/violence nexus. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence and Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development (2000: 31), for example, noted that 'having been socialised into a culture of alcohol, substance abuse, violence and anarchy, the crimes committed by some offenders reflect those witnessed or experienced as a child'. In such situations, drinking and violence becomes a 'socially learned response'. Similarly, Pearson (2001a: np) argued that 'substance abuse epidemics are embedded in our Aboriginal social web and has become our new dysfunctional culture; to drink is to be Aboriginal'.
  • Alcohol misuse has corrupted some of the basic traditional customs of Indigenous people. It has become interwoven with, and an integral part of, kin-based sharing obligations, but these obligations have been distorted, with alcohol now being the 'shared' commodity rather than food (Pearson 2001a: np). If kin obligations of sharing are not adhered to in relation to alcohol, violence may result.
  • Alcohol may be a way of coping with the consequences of colonisation and dispossession. It provides a means of dealing with or masking the accumulated stress and trauma arising from the breakdown of traditional culture and the loss of spirituality. This may be particularly pertinent in the case of Indigenous males, at least some of whom, as a result of the disintegration of their traditional roles and responsibilities, now find themselves in a marginalised position on the fringe of Indigenous communities.
  • Alcohol may provide a means of empowerment, with alcohol-related violence 'a symbol of protest against the state for the dependent situations in which [Indigenous people] find themselves' (Sackett cited in Homel, Lincoln & Herd 1999: 189).
  • Even if the offender themself is not intoxicated, alcohol may still contribute to violent behaviour by providing non-intoxicated individuals with greater offending opportunities. As Fitzgerald (2001: vol 1: 89) argues, 'Sober men may act opportunistically towards intoxicated women', while older persons under the influence of alcohol may be more vulnerable to physical or financial elder abuse, some of which may be triggered by the perpetrators' need to obtain money to buy alcohol (Western Australia Office of the Public Advocate 2005). The same applies to children and young persons, who may be rendered more vulnerable to victimisation either because they themselves are intoxicated or because the intoxication of their primary caregivers places them at risk. This includes situations where young children find themselves living in a house full of intoxicated adults or situations where young people are left to roam the streets late at night because of the lack of parental supervision due to alcohol consumption. Another scenario where the victim's alcohol use increases the opportunities for perpetrators to commit sexual offences involves young girls who engage in transactional sex either in direct exchange for alcohol or as a way of obtaining money to purchase it (Mullighan 2008).

One other issue raised by various commentators is the link between alcohol consumption and the welfare-based cash economy. Various inquiries have noted that much of the violence in remote communities occurs on, or immediately after pension day, when residents gain access to cash. A Cape York inquiry, for example noted that hospital admissions were significantly higher on these days than on other days of the week (Fitzgerald 2001). The need to break the link between access to welfare monies and alcohol abuse was a fundamental driver of the Australian Government's NTER.

Illicit drug use

Extent of illicit drug use in Indigenous communities

While illicit drug use appears to be a lesser problem in Indigenous communities than alcohol misuse, levels are increasing. Findings from the NATSIHS indicate that, in 2004–05, eight percent of Indigenous adult respondents in non-remote areas reported using illicit substances in the 12 months leading up to the survey, with cannabis being the main drug used by 23 percent of these individuals (SCRGSP 2007).

The 2007 NDSHS, targeted at individuals aged 14 years and over, found that 24 percent of Indigenous respondents had used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months, compared with only 13 percent of the non-Indigenous population. However, when cannabis use was excluded, the differences between the two groups decreased noticeably; down to 10 percent for Indigenous people and eight percent for non-Indigenous people (AIHW 2008).

While little information is available on geographic differences in patterns of Indigenous illicit drug use, there is some indication that levels of cannabis use are very high in regional and remote areas of Australia and may be increasing.

  • In Albany Western Australia, almost 30 percent of Indigenous youth aged 14–19 years indicated they used cannabis, compared with only 18 percent of the same age group in the general Australian population (Gray et al. 1997).
  • Interviews conducted with Indigenous residents aged 13–36 years in Arnhem Land in 2002 revealed that, in the mid 1980s, there was no detected cannabis use in Top End communities However, by 2001–02, there had been a substantial increase, with 60–73 percent of males and 26–27 percent of females aged 13–34 years using this drug. The proportion of 'current' Indigenous male users was almost double that of the general NT population in the same age group (Clough et al. 2004).
  • A more recent survey conducted in the same region in 2005–06 noted that levels of cannabis use had remained high, with 61 percent of males and 58 percent of females aged 13–34 years using this drug on a weekly basis. Among users, 88 percent reported symptoms of cannabis dependency. There were also very high levels of concurrent alcohol use (reported by 86% of respondents; Lee, Clough & Conigrave 2007).
  • A snapshot of cannabis use provided by the NT Department of Health and Community Services found 'widespread use in remote communities in the Alice Springs region and increasing use in larger communities in the Barkly region and in the Arnhem region, with youths as young as 12 involved' (Select Committee on Substance Abuse in the Community 2003: 11).
  • The WA Aboriginal Child Health Survey found that 41 percent of Indigenous children aged 15–16 years had tried marijuana compared with 33 percent of non-Indigenous young people. Marijuana use was associated with parental use of drugs, poor school performance and school attendance (Blair, Zubrick & Cox 2005).

To obtain a better understanding of geographic variations in Indigenous drug use, almost 800 police officers in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland were questioned about their perceptions of illicit drug use in their region (Putt & Delahunty 2006). The study found that patterns of use varied considerably between urban and non-urban communities, with amphetamines, heroin, benzodiazepines and ecstasy considered to be more prevalent in urban than rural areas. Almost nine in 10 rural and urban police reported that cannabis was commonly used by Indigenous persons in their area. When asked which types of substance use they considered to be a serious or moderately serious problem among Indigenous people in their local area, similar proportions of rural- and urban-based police nominated alcohol, followed by cannabis. However, urban-based police were more concerned about amphetamine use than were their rural counterparts, while petrol sniffing was considered a more serious problem by rural police. Respondents also indicated that Indigenous persons in regional and remote locations were heavily involved in the cannabis trade, but were less involved in the trading of amphetamines.

One other area of concern identified by various studies is that of petrol sniffing, particularly as it affects young Indigenous people. In some locations, instances of abuse involving boot polish, glue, deodorants and perfumes have also been observed (Coorey 2001). The 2004 NDSHS found that petrol sniffing affected a considerable proportion of young Indigenous people living in remote areas of Australia, particularly in 'the Western corridor of Central Australia and the Tri State region of SA, WA and the NT' (SCRGSP 2007). A SA Coronial Inquest conducted in 2002 found that petrol sniffing was 'endemic' on the APY Lands and, in its view, was responsible for 35 deaths in the previous 20 years. It noted, however, that levels had diminished since the late 1990s with the introduction of OPAL fuel—a conclusion supported by the recent inquiry into child sexual abuse on the Lands (Mullighan 2008: 87). However, Mullighan (2008) also noted that this reduction in petrol sniffing by children and young people had been offset by an increased use of marijuana. A similar trend has recently been observed in a remote Arnhem Land community (Senior & Chenhall 2008). This study, conducted over a five year period, noted that the practice of banning alcohol and replacing petrol with its non-sniffable form as part of the Australian Government's Emergency Response has reduced petrol sniffing but has increased the use of marijuana (Senior & Chenhall 2008). The study noted, though, that this was not simply a matter of individuals substituting one type of drug for another, because the circumstances under which petrol sniffing occurred, the characteristics of the user population and the way in which these users were perceived by the community were different from those associated with marijuana use. While petrol sniffing was surreptitious and usually involved unattached young males, marijuana use occurred within the home and family and involved a wider cross-section of the community.

The consequences of petrol sniffing have been well documented, including the damage caused to the protective membrane surrounding the peripheral nerve endings of the brain, resulting in hallucinations, diminished levels of concentration, an inability to control behaviour and, in some cases, death (Brady 1992).

Illicit drug use and violent offending

Much of our knowledge about the interrelationship between drug use and Indigenous offending is derived from surveys of illicit drug use patterns among particular groups of offenders within the criminal justice system. These surveys suggest that, in contrast to alcohol use, illicit drug use among Indigenous offenders is no higher and, at times, is actually lower than that of non-Indigenous offenders. Data from the NHMP show that a lower proportion of Indigenous (13%) than non-Indigenous (19%) homicides during the period 1999–00 to 2004–05 occurred while the offender was under the influence of illicit drugs (SCRGSP 2007). In addition, the proportion of Indigenous homicides that were drug related fell from 35 percent in 1999–2000 to 10 percent in 2004–05. While these findings are encouraging, they need to be understood in the context of the much greater influence of alcohol in Indigenous homicide, as discussed earlier.

A study of offenders in Queensland (Mazerolle & Legosz 2007) found that, while overall levels of illicit drug use were relatively high, Indigenous respondents were less likely to report such use than their non-Indigenous counterparts. They were significantly less likely to use:

  • sedatives (19% compared with 33% of non-Indigenous respondents);
  • tranquillisers (12% compared with 31%);
  • hallucinogens (24% compared with 50%);
  • amphetamines (46% compared with 66%);
  • prescription amphetamines (3% compared with 15%);
  • cocaine (14% compared with 30%);
  • ecstasy (16% compared with 42%);
  • heroin (28% compared with 41%); and
  • methadone (6% compared with 20%).

Interestingly, though, a significantly higher percentage of Indigenous than non-Indigenous respondents were concerned that their drug use was out of control (42% compared with 28% respectively).

The most comprehensive source of data on the link between drug use and crime comes from DUMA and DUCO. Pertinent results from these surveys are detailed below.

Adult female prisoners: DUCO

Of those women prisoners surveyed in six Australian jurisdictions in 2003, 27 percent were Indigenous (Johnson 2004). As noted earlier, while most of the results do not differentiate between violent and non-violent respondents, they are nevertheless relevant to a discussion of the link between drug use and violence among Indigenous persons because of the high proportion of Indigenous female interviewees who were either currently imprisoned for an act of violence or had previously committed such an offence. The survey found that (Johnson 2004):

  • Among Indigenous female prisoners, the most frequently used illicit drug was cannabis, although usage was 1.5 times below that of alcohol. Over four in 10 Indigenous women (44%) reportedly used cannabis in the six months prior to arrest, which exceeded the level of cannabis use among non-Indigenous women (38%).
  • In contrast, non-Indigenous female prisoners were more likely than their Indigenous counterparts to use a drug other than cannabis or alcohol—almost three-quarters (72%) compared with just over one-half (52%) respectively.
  • Non-Indigenous women were also more likely to report regular use of more than one illicit drug (43% compared with 27% of Indigenous women).
  • Consistent with the above results, while a higher proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous women admitted to alcohol dependency (as discussed earlier), the proportion dependent on illicit drugs only was lower (26% compared with 46% for non-Indigenous women).
  • When those individuals dependent on illicit drug use only and those dependent on both illicit drugs and alcohol were combined, just under one-half (49%) of Indigenous women were found to be dependent on some form of illicit drug compared with over half (57%) of the non-Indigenous women.

In terms of the impact of illegal drug use on offending behaviour:

  • Although Indigenous women were almost four times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be under the influence of alcohol rather than an illicit substance at the time of their most recent offence, the opposite was true in relation to illicit drugs. Overall, non-Indigenous women were 1.3 times more likely to be under the influence of an illicit drug (47% compared with 35% of Indigenous women respectively) at the time of committing their last offence prior to incarceration.
  • Whereas Indigenous women were equally likely to blame alcohol (24%) and illegal drugs (21%) for their most recent offending, non-Indigenous women were more likely to ascribe their behaviour to illicit drug use only (21%) with only two percent nominating alcohol as a causative factor.
  • Interestingly, none of the Indigenous women and only one percent of the non-Indigenous women attributed their offending to the combined effect of alcohol and illegal drugs.

Among those female prisoners who became regular offenders:

  • Indigenous women were, on average, older than their non-Indigenous counterparts when they first used alcohol (average age of 15 years compared with 14.4 years for non-Indigenous women), cannabis (15.7 and 15.1 years respectively) and other drugs (17.9 years and 17.2 years respectively). They were also slightly older when they committed their first violent offence (21 years for Indigenous women and 20.5 years for non-Indigenous women).
  • There was little difference between the two groups in terms of the relative sequence of drug use/offending events. Approximately one-third of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women commenced drug use prior to offending (36% and 33% respectively), while another third indicated that their first drug use and first offending coincided (34% and 35% respectively). Finally, just under one-third of both groups (29% and 32% of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women respectively) commenced drug use after they had committed their first offence. The study therefore concluded that 'Drug use…seems to have a similar effect on offending among drug using Indigenous and non-Indigenous women' (Johnson 2004: 101).

Adult male offenders: DUCO/DUMA

The responses from over 2,000 adult male prisoners surveyed in Western Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Northern Territory prisons in mid 2001 (the DUCO sample) and 5,797 adult male detainees interviewed in seven urban-based police stations or watch houses in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales in 2002 and 2003 (the DUMA sample) were analysed for information about the relationship between illicit drug use and offending (Putt, Payne & Milner 2005). Once again, while these findings are not specific to violent offenders, their relevance to the drugs/violent crime nexus is indicated by the relatively high level of violence perpetrated by these respondents (detailed earlier). Findings indicated that, while Indigenous respondents in both the DUCO and DUMA samples were significantly more likely to report use of and dependency on alcohol rather than on illicit drugs, and to attribute their most recent offending to alcohol rather than illicit drug dependency (see earlier discussion), some interesting findings in relation to illicit drug use per se did emerge (see Table 13). In particular:

  • A significantly lower proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous DUMA and DUCO detainees had recently used heroin or LSD/hallucinogens/ecstasy.
  • Recent cannabis use was significantly higher among Indigenous than non-Indigenous DUMA respondents, although no differences were observed between these two groups in the DUCO sample.
  • A significantly higher proportion of non-Indigenous than Indigenous DUCO respondents were regular users of cocaine. Among DUMA respondents, levels of cocaine use were very low and there were no significant differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous detainees.
  • The illegal use of benzodiazepines was significantly lower among Indigenous than non-Indigenous respondents in the DUCO sample, but no differences were observed in the DUMA sample.
  • Amphetamine use was significantly lower among Indigenous users in the DUCO group but significantly higher in the DUMA group when compared with non-Indigenous users.
Table 13: Self-reported recent drug use by adult male police and prison detainees, DUMA and DUCO (%)
Type of drug DUCO (used in 6 months prior to imprisonment) DUMA (used in past 30 days)
Indigenous Non-Indigenous Indigenous Non-Indigenous
Alcohol 90** 76 59** 50
Amphetamines 28 46** 40* 35
Cannabis 61 61 70** 58
Cocaine 8 19** 2 4
Heroin 15 31** 13 16*
Illegal benzodiazepines 15 25** 7 9
Inhalants/glue/petrol 4** 2
LSD/hallucinogens, ecstasy 15 26** 7 10*

*Statistically significant difference at p<0.05

**Statistically significant difference at p<0.01

Source: Putt, Payne & Milner 2005: 4

Those respondents who indicated use of a particular drug in the previous six months (in the case of DUCO) or 12 months (for DUMA) were asked whether they were dependent on that drug. The extent of dependency varied according to the type of drug involved and whether the respondents were prisoners or police arrestees.

  • Well over four in 10 (45%) Indigenous users of cannabis interviewed as part of DUCO indicated they were dependent on this drug, which was higher than the level of dependency among non-Indigenous cannabis users (32%). In contrast, among DUMA respondents, levels of cannabis dependency were the same for both groups (33%).
  • Levels of heroin dependency among those who used this drug were lower among Indigenous than non-Indigenous users and this applied to both DUCO and DUMA respondents. Nevertheless, over one-half (53%) of Indigenous heroin users surveyed by DUCO felt they were dependent on the drug, as were 44 percent of those Indigenous persons canvassed by DUMA.
  • Four in 10 (40%) Indigenous prisoners who had used amphetamines in the previous six months felt they were dependent on it, as did one-quarter (26%) of Indigenous police arrestees. These dependency levels were not significantly different from those reported by non-Indigenous users.

When respondents were asked whether they attributed their most recent serious offence to either intoxication or addiction to an illicit drug or to combination of both (Putt, Payne & Milner 2005), results indicated that, among DUCO respondents:

  • Sixteen percent of Indigenous prisoners blamed their offending on their addiction to illegal drugs, either alone (11%) or in combination with alcohol (5%). This figure was markedly lower than that recorded by non-Indigenous respondents, 24 percent of whom attributed their most recent offence to addiction to illicit drugs only (22%) or illicit drugs and alcohol (2%).
  • A further 19 percent and 18 percent of Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners respectively considered their most recent offence was due to their intoxication from an illicit drug. While these proportions are similar, most of the Indigenous offenders in this group cited intoxication with illicit drugs and alcohol combined (14%), whereas most non-Indigenous offenders in this category identified intoxication with illicit drugs only (12%).
  • When addiction and intoxication data were combined, results indicated that only eight percent of Indigenous respondents attributed their most recent offending to addiction/intoxication from an illicit drug only, while 19 percent blamed a combination of illicit drugs and alcohol addiction/intoxication.

Within the DUMA sample, although nearly twice as many Indigenous than non-Indigenous respondents blamed their offending on alcohol, an equal proportion in both groups ascribed their behaviour to either dependency on, or intoxication from, illegal drugs.

Juvenile offenders: DUCO

A survey of Indigenous and non-Indigenous juvenile detainees (Prichard & Payne 2005) identified some different trends from those outlined above for adults. Again, while analysis focused on all detainees rather than on violent offenders per se, the results are pertinent because of the high levels of assaultive behaviour among these individuals, as indicated by the fact that:

  • Sixty-five percent of Indigenous detainees had assaulted someone at least once in their lifetime, as had 84 percent of non-Indigenous detainees;
  • Twenty-eight percent and 31 percent respectively engaged in this behaviour on a regular basis; and
  • Twenty-five percent and 42 percent respectively were currently imprisoned for assault.

In terms of drug use profiles, there were a number of similarities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youths, with both groups reportedly using similar types of drugs at similar frequencies. The exception was amphetamines and ecstasy where non-Indigenous use was significantly higher. However, Indigenous youths were more likely than non-Indigenous youth to attribute their criminal offending to substance use (35% compared with 29% respectively) and were 1.3 times more likely to nominate both intoxication from, and daily use of, illicit drugs as a contributing factor in their most recent offending episode (25% compared with 19% respectively; Prichard & Payne 2005).

Interestingly, a much higher proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous substance-using juvenile detainees reported that substance use commenced after their first offending episode (53% compared with 39% respectively) while a much lower proportion indicated that substance use preceded their first offence (22% compared with 36% of non-Indigenous juvenile detainees). The study therefore concluded that 'substance use may have played a greater role in the criminal careers of non-Indigenous youths than it did for Indigenous youths' (Prichard & Payne 2005: 89).


To summarise the findings from the studies cited above:

  • Alcohol use was far more prevalent among adult male and female Indigenous offenders than illicit drug use. However, the opposite was true for non-Indigenous offenders.
  • The illicit substance most frequently used by Indigenous offenders was cannabis, with usage levels consistently (but not always) higher than among non-Indigenous offenders. In contrast, use of illicit drugs other than cannabis was lower, although these inter-group differences were not always significant.
  • Almost half of the Indigenous respondents admitted to being dependent on an illicit drug, either by itself or in association with alcohol.
  • Despite the prominent role played by alcohol in Indigenous offending, some gender differences were evident. Among Indigenous women, illicit drug and alcohol use seemed to be equally implicated in their offending, while among Indigenous males, alcohol was far more dominant.
  • Nevertheless, a lower proportion of both Indigenous male and female offenders blamed their most recent offending on illicit drug use than did their non-Indigenous counterparts.
  • There may also be an inter-generational component in the drug use patterns of Indigenous offenders. Indigenous drug-dependent female prisoners, for example, were significantly more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to have grown up in families with drug problems (Johnson 2004). Almost three-quarters of Indigenous youths detained in Australian juvenile detention centres reported coming from substance-abusing families, which was significantly higher than that reported by non-Indigenous youths (59%). Among Indigenous juvenile detainees, 39 percent had a substance-abusing mother/stepmother, while 43 percent reported paternal substance abuse (Prichard & Payne 2005).

The relatively high levels of cannabis use among Indigenous offender populations is particularly concerning. A growing body of international research indicates that long-term marijuana use may be associated with violent offending via its impact on an individual's mental health status (Moore & Stuart 2005). Heavy use of this substance is now linked with an increased risk of psychosis, including schizophrenia, depression and other mood disorders, particularly among those individuals whose genetic predisposition makes them more vulnerable to the effects of this drug (eg Brook, Balka & Whiteman 2001; Brook et al. 2002; Lynskey et al. 2004; Patton et al. 2002). While most of this research had focused on the general population, there is some indication of a similar link between marijuana use and mental health problems in Indigenous communities. For example, a recent study in Arnhem Land found that, after adjusting for age, sex and other substance use patterns (tobacco, alcohol and lifetime petrol sniffing), Indigenous persons who were heavy cannabis users were four times more likely than the rest of the sample to report moderate to severe depressive symptoms (Lee et al. 2008). Further research in the same region found that the risk of anxiety-dependency symptoms increased as the level of cannabis use increased, although use of this drug was not associated with an increased risk of psychosis (Clough et al. 2005).

On a qualitative level, an NT Inquiry observed that in many of the Indigenous communities it visited, cannabis use was cited as a significant cause of fighting, either when a person 'humbugged' another family member for money with which to purchase the drug, or when a person became agitated because they are unable to obtain the drug (Wild & Anderson 2007). Contrary to this, however, the Inquiry also noted that in some Indigenous communities, young people were deliberately encouraged to use cannabis because it supposedly had a 'calming' effect on them and led to a more 'peaceful' community. Similar contradictory findings emerged from a study of marijuana use in an Arnhem Land community (Wild & Anderson 2007). On the one hand, residents expressed concern about this drug's link with domestic violence and family neglect but, on the other hand, believed that 'marijuana smokers were less harmful or disruptive to community life' than were petrol sniffers (Wild & Anderson 2007: 173). The Mullighan Inquiry (2008) found evidence that cannabis use increased the risk of involvement by young girls in transactional sex as a means of either obtaining cannabis or the money with which to purchase it. It expressed concern that the recent increase in marijuana use among young people in the APY Lands could potentially lead to an increase in the incidence of such under-aged sexual activity because marijuana was more expensive than petrol.

The general literature also suggests a link between methamphetamine use and violent, aggressive behaviour. This has been attributed to methamphetamine psychosis which apparently resembles the acute symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and can last for periods ranging form of two to three hours or a number of days (Drabsch 2006). While not all users exhibit such psychosis, evidence suggests that this condition is 11 times more common among users than non-users (Drabsch 2006).

One final issue that has received attention in the general literature is whether drug use leads to offending or vice versa. Three different explanations about the sequencing of events are now accepted (Johnson 2004; Prichard & Payne 2005) and are likely to be equally applicable within the Indigenous community:

  • first, that drug use leads to involvement in crime, either because of the psychopharmacological effects of the drugs or because individuals need to offend to obtain money to buy drugs;
  • second, that rather than being causally linked, drugs and crime simply co-exist within the same subculture; and
  • third, that drugs and crime are both caused by the same underlying factors, such as childhood experiences of abuse or family problems.

While these hypotheses have not been specifically tested within an Indigenous context, it is likely that all three apply to varying degrees, as indicated by the fact that among Indigenous women prisoners surveyed as part of DUCO, one-third indicated that they had commenced drug use prior to offending, another third reported that first drug use and first offending coincided and the final third noted that they had commenced drug use after they had committed their first offence.

Childhood experiences of violence

Extent of childhood exposure to violence within Indigenous communities

Data from a variety of sources, including hospital separation records, child protection notification systems and court records relating to care and protection orders, all point to disproportionately high levels of child abuse, neglect and family violence within Indigenous communities. For example, rates of hospitalisation for neglect and abandonment among Indigenous children were 30 to 80 times higher than for the non-Indigenous population. Between 2002–03 and 2005–06, in most Australian states, Indigenous children were between five to 10 times more likely to be the subject of a substantiated child-protection notification than non-Indigenous children (Bryant & Willis 2008). Anecdotal evidence (eg see Wild & Anderson 2007; Gordon, Hallahan & Henry 2002; Mullighan 2008) also indicates that many Indigenous children, particularly those living in isolated communities, are regularly exposed to pornography and because of overcrowded housing conditions, witness sexual behaviour between adults from a very young age. Added to this is their exposure to the high levels of generalised violence in some communities.

Link between childhood experiences and violence

There is growing evidence in the general literature that children who experience or witness violence have a greater risk of becoming perpetrators of such behaviour (see Bryant & Willis 2008; Mazerolle & Legosz 2007 for a more detailed overview). The same relationship seems to apply within Indigenous communities. A NSW inquiry into Indigenous child sexual abuse noted that children who constantly witnessed violence within the home, or who were themselves subjected to child abuse, may experience 'devastating psychological affects' and, in the absences of an alternative healthy model of living, may 'start to use violence themselves' (Ella-Duncan et al. 2006: 57).

That a high proportion of Indigenous female offenders have experienced trauma and abuse as a child is indicated by a number of studies. Interviews with 133 females held in WA prisons in November and December 2005 found that 22 percent of the 60 Indigenous women interviewed had been brought up as wards of the state, compared with only 11 percent of the 70 non-Indigenous women surveyed (Department of Corrective Services Western Australia 2006: 45). A survey of Indigenous women in NSW prisons found that 70 percent had been the victims of child sexual abuse, with most also reporting that they had experienced other types of abuse as children (Lawrie 2003a; 2003b). In addition, 78 percent were victims of violence as adults, while 44 percent said they had been sexually assaulted as adults. Significantly, the majority of these Indigenous women had been victims of violent abuse before they became involved in crime. The study also found a clear link between child sexual assault and drug use, with 98 percent of women who had been sexually assaulted as children reporting that they were drug users. However, in contrast to Indigenous males, these women were much more likely to use illicit drugs (particularly heroin) than alcohol. Most attributed their illicit drug problem 'to their experiences of past violence and their inability to get help with it' (Lawrie 2003a: np). The study therefore concluded that 'unless the abuse experienced by Aboriginal women is effectively addressed they will continue with their drug use and continue to offend' (Lawrie 2003a: np).

Interviews conducted as part of DUCO (see Johnson 2004) also revealed high levels of child and adult abuse among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous female prisoners. The survey indicated that:

  • Sixty percent of Indigenous female prisoners were the victims of child abuse, while 79 percent were the victims of adult abuse. Figures for non-Indigenous women were relatively similar (65% and 77% respectively).
  • The main form of child abuse experienced by Indigenous women was emotional abuse (52%), followed by physical abuse (39%) and sexual abuse (37%).
  • Non-Indigenous women were slightly more likely than Indigenous women to have experienced physical and emotional abuse as children, but were less likely to have been neglected. However, these inter-group differences were not statistically significant.
  • The main forms of adult abuse experienced by Indigenous women prisoners were physical abuse (74%) and emotional abuse (63%). Only 29 percent reported being the victims of sexual abuse.
  • Proportionately fewer non-Indigenous than Indigenous women indicated that they had been physically abused as adults (61% compared with 74%) but proportionately more had been subjected to either adult sexual abuse (36% and 29% respectively) or emotional abuse (66% compared with 63%). However, these inter-group differences were not statistically significant.
  • Those Indigenous women who were imprisoned for a violent offence were significantly less likely to have experienced adult abuse than those Indigenous females incarcerated for non-violent offences (61% compared with 83% respectively). However, they were more likely to have experienced child abuse, although these differences were not significant.

Levels of childhood abuse were also high among Indigenous male offenders. Interviews conducted with 58 Indigenous male prisoners convicted of a sexual and/or physical assault found that almost four in 10 (38%) had been victims of rape or sexual abuse. Most of these individuals appeared to be suffering from post-traumatic stress (Atkinson-Ryan cited in Wild & Anderson 2007). Findings from the DUCO survey of predominantly male juveniles found that among Indigenous youths, one in five (21%) reported physical abuse, while three in 10 (30%) indicated they had been victims of emotional abuse. Interestingly, however, these levels were significantly lower than those reported by non-Indigenous juvenile detainees. Among this latter group, 37 percent said they had been physically assaulted, while 43 percent had experienced emotional abuse (Prichard & Payne 2005: 90).

A study that focused specifically on the link between childhood abuse and subsequent offending involved a survey of 480 offenders (20% of whom were Indigenous) serving intensive correction or probation orders in Queensland (Mazerolle & Legosz 2007). It found strong links between criminal offending and a range of childhood traumas including chaotic family experiences, parental alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, physical and emotional abuse and neglect. Interestingly though, while rates of exposure to various forms of childhood trauma among Indigenous offenders were much higher than those in the general population, they were not significantly different from those experienced by non-Indigenous offenders. Instead, gender appeared to be the key factor, with Indigenous and non-Indigenous females experiencing higher levels of unwanted childhood sexual abuse than their male counterparts. The key findings included the following:

  • Almost one-half of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous female respondents reported experiencing some form of non-physical abuse as a child. Approximately 45 percent and 54 percent respectively reported physical abuse, while 30 percent and 25 percent respectively in each group had been subjected to penetrative sexual abuse.
  • Figures were lower for males. About 21 percent of Indigenous males, compared with over 30 percent of non-Indigenous males, had been subjected to non-physical abuse as a child, while about 25 percent and 31 percent respectively had been subjected to childhood physical abuse. Levels of penetrative sexual abuse were similar—at about 11 to 12 percent.
  • Interestingly, these figures reveal that, whereas Indigenous females recorded somewhat lower levels of childhood abuse than non-Indigenous females, among males the reverse applied.
  • Levels of adult sexual abuse (ie since the age of 16 years) were also very high, with an overall prevalence for all respondents of 54 percent. There were no significant differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders.
  • Experiences of child sexual assault seemed to increase the amount and variety of violent offending during adulthood among females but not among males. Among female respondents (ie Indigenous and non-Indigenous combined), those who had experienced childhood sexual assault were approximately 1.6 times as likely to become an adult violent offender than those who were not abused as children (over 80% compared with just over 50% respectively). In contrast, over 80 percent of males were violent offenders, irrespective of whether they had been sexually abused in childhood.
  • The relationship between childhood sexual abuse and adult violent offending did not differ by Indigenous status, although no specific figures were cited in the report.
  • For all groups of offenders, more extreme and sequential exposure to child sexual assault was related to higher levels of suicide attempts and self-harm. Most strikingly, the study found that all Indigenous male respondents who had experienced penetrative abuse as a child had attempted suicide at least once, while seven in 10 had self-harmed. These levels were greater than those recorded by non-Indigenous males (60% of whom had attempted suicide and approximately 27% of whom had self-harmed). There were, however, no significant differences in either suicide or self-harm between Indigenous and non-Indigenous females. Just over 50 percent in both groups reported a suicide attempt, while between 45 percent and 50 percent admitted to self-harming behaviours.
  • While not specific to Indigenous respondents, the study found that child sexual assault did not have a significant impact on school completion levels but was related to multiple school suspensions/expulsions. In contrast, victims of childhood sexual assault were significantly more likely than non-victims to report involvement in juvenile delinquency, to have used drugs for non-medical purposes by the age of 18 years, to be dependent on alcohol (males only, not females), to use certain types of illicit drugs, to suffer from depression as adults, to have attempted suicide and to engage in self-harming behaviours. In turn, each of these factors poses its own risk for involvement in violence.
  • The intergenerational nature of the childhood abuse/violent offending relationship was indicated by the finding that respondents who had experienced severe forms of childhood sexual assault were more likely to have children who also suffered abuse, although the study did not identify who was responsible for that abuse. One explanation may be that offenders with a history of child sexual assault live in situations which not only continues to place them at risk of adult abuse but also places their children at risk of abuse (Mazerolle & Legosz 2007).

Overall, the study concluded that while there is a clear link between childhood exposure to sexual assault and the degree of criminal involvement as adults, many of the relationships linking prior risk to negative consequences later in life seem to be shared by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders alike.

However, the problem with all of the studies described above is that they are limited to a relatively small subset of Indigenous offenders in contact with the criminal justice system. Their findings may therefore not be representative of those Indigenous persons who, although suffering childhood abuse, do not engage in criminal behaviour. This problem is not shared by another Queensland study (Stewart, Dennison & Hurren 2005) that focused on all children born in 1983 and 1984 who had at least one recorded contact with that state's Department of Families (for a child protection or Children's Court matter) and/or the Queensland Police Service (for a formal caution). It tracked their interaction with both the juvenile justice and the child protection systems from birth to the age of 17 years. It then compared the offending behaviour of those children in the birth cohort who had experienced maltreatment (defined as either emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect) with those who had not been maltreated. The study revealed that:

  • Although Indigenous children accounted for only four percent of the 1983 and 1984 birth cohorts, they constituted 11 percent of maltreated children. They were also more likely to have more than one substantiated notification and experience multiple types of maltreatment than non-Indigenous children.
  • Indigenous children with a substantiated maltreatment incident were more likely than non-Indigenous maltreated children to be placed outside the home at some stage during their childhood, possibly because of the greater number of maltreatment episodes which they experienced.
  • Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children who experienced some form of maltreatment were more likely to offend in adolescence than non-maltreated children.
  • However, levels of offending among Indigenous maltreated children were higher than among non-Indigenous maltreated children, with more than one-half of the maltreated Indigenous males offending before the age of 17 years compared with only one-quarter (26%) of the overall sample.
  • Among maltreated children, Indigenous status, sex, age of final notification, number of notifications, the number of maltreatment episodes and whether or not the maltreatment had involved neglect or physical abuse (rather than sexual abuse) all proved to be independent predictors of the likelihood of juvenile offending. However, of these variables, sex and Indigenous status were the most significant. In fact, 59 percent and 36 percent of maltreated Indigenous males and females respectively subsequently offended, compared with only 32 percent and 16 percent of non-Indigenous maltreated males and females respectively (Stewart, Dennison & Hurren 2005).

The authors therefore concluded that, while maltreatment may not be the specific cause of offending, it does act as an indicator that the child is being exposed to significant risks that may subsequently lead to offending.

One final issue relating to childhood experiences and their potential link with violence is the issue of whether or not an individual was removed from their family when young. That such an experience may act as a risk factor for offending is indicated by findings from the NATSISS, which showed that those respondents aged 15 years and over who had been removed from their natural family were 1.3 times as likely to be charged by police than those who had never been removed (54% compared with 34% respectively; ABS 2002).


At least three explanations may account for the apparent link between childhood victimisation and subsequent offending:

  • first, that the experiences of childhood victimisation are a direct cause of offending;
  • second, that the relationship is simply coincidental; or, those factors that increase the risk of victimisation as a child are the same as those that increase the risk that an individual will become an offender; and
  • third, that those who experience abuse or neglect as children reside in families and communities where violence and maltreatment is considered normative. The child may, therefore, grow up believing that such behaviour is an inevitable and 'normal' part of living. Under these circumstances, behaving violently becomes a learned response to stressful situations among these abused children.

Anecdotal evidence, as summarised below, suggests that all three explanations may be relevant to Indigenous children.

The existence of a direct causative link between childhood experiences and subsequent involvement in violent offending was supported by the inquiry into violence in Cape York (Fitzgerald 2001). Fitzgerald (2001) cited research by Partnerships Against Domestic Violence which found that being abused as a child and/or being exposed to family violence had a negative impact on the child's developing neurophysiology. This had the potential to reduce the child's cognitive development and generate a range of symptoms, including anxiety, depression, psychological distress, an inability to form attachments, poor educational attainment, lower job opportunities and difficulties in dealing with anger. In turn, these predisposed the individual to engage in a range of dysfunctional behaviours, including alcohol and illicit drug abuse and violence. When these individuals became parents themselves, there was a likelihood that the cycle would start all over again. The Cape York Inquiry also noted that, in small communities, even if a child's family environment was free of violence, there was a high probability that the child would nevertheless be exposed to violence present in other families living in close proximity (Fitzgerald 2001).

The APY Lands Inquiry was somewhat more circumspect in claiming a direct causal link between child abuse and adult violence. It noted that, while childhood experiences could not be ruled out as the cause of violence, other factors may also be involved. It did, however, find evidence that victims of child sexual abuse exhibited a range of behavioural problems including chronic kleptomania, suicidal behaviour, explicit sexual teasing and violence. Such violence sometimes became manifest at a relatively young age, as indicated by observations from the local school principal who noted that children whom he believed had been sexually abused were often violent at school (Mullighan 2008).

An inquiry into family violence in Queensland (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000) indicated support for the 'normalisation' theory of violence. It observed that children, particularly in isolated communities where there were no other reference points against which local experiences could be compared, learned violence 'as part of their upbringing and socialisation'. While the children may not have become used to it, they did learn to adapt to such violence (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000) and subsequently engaged in violence themselves. The normalisation of violence also means that alternative role models that value safe and non-violent family relationships are not available to younger generations and so the intergenerational cycle of violence remains unbroken (Fitzgerald 2001).

Whatever the underlying explanation, the relationship between childhood abuse and neglect and subsequent engagement in violence is not a straightforward one. There are gender differences as indicated by the Queensland research that found the experience of child sexual assault increased the amount and variety of violent offending among female offenders but not males (Mazerolle & Legosz 2007). And, as borne out by the study of maltreatment and juvenile offending in Queensland (Stewart, Dennison & Hurren 2005), not all individuals who experience child abuse and neglect subsequently become abusive adults.

Exposure to pornography

While little empirical data are available, anecdotal evidence indicates access to pornography is widespread, particularly in remote Indigenous communities (Wild & Anderson 2007; Coorey 2001; Fitzgerald 2001; Mullighan 2008). The potential link between the viewing of sexually explicit material and Indigenous violence has long been recognised. In the early 1990s, Indigenous women and community workers attributed an increase in physical violence and sexual abuse (particularly by Indigenous men and boys) to the entry into their communities of pornography (Atkinson 1990a; 1990b). Assaults on young children, infants and animals by young males escalated after a shipment of pornographic videos (Hazlehurst 1994).

More recent inquiries have reiterated these concerns. An investigation into Indigenous child abuse in Queensland and New South Wales noted that Indigenous informants 'expressed concern that children, together with adults are watching violent videos “over and over” because of the lack of alternative activities' (Coorey 2001: 8). This, it was argued, contributed to the 'development of sexually inappropriate behaviour and new styles of crime, that contrast to traditional ways of behaviour' (Coorey 2001: 8). This issue was also explored by the Northern Territory inquiry into Indigenous child abuse (Wild & Anderson 2007). It drew attention to the proliferation of pornographic materials within these communities in recent years and its use as a way of 'grooming' children for sex. It also argued that exposure to pornography contributed to the sexualisation of children, leading to the acting out of inappropriate sexual behaviours. Similar findings emerged from the APY Lands Inquiry (Mullighan 2008).

While both the NT and the SA inquiries (among others) have stressed that the relationship between pornography and sexual abuse is likely to be complex, in view of what seems to be an escalation in access to such material particularly in remote Indigenous communities, 'determining the nature of the relationship is becoming increasingly important' (Wild & Anderson 2007: 210). It should also be stressed that exposing children to pornography is, itself, a form of child sexual abuse and is defined as such by legislation.

Education, employment, income and housing factors

Extent of community disadvantage

That Indigenous people experience disadvantage across a wide range of educational, employment, financial and housing indicators is well documented. As a result, only a few survey-based statistics will be summarised here to substantiate this. (For further information see ABS 2006d, 2004; Bryant & Willis 2008; SCRGSP 2007).

In relation to education:

  • According to the 2002 NATSISS, significantly fewer Indigenous than non-Indigenous respondents aged 18 years and over had obtained a post-secondary education (29% and 50% respectively) or had completed Year 12 (11% and 15% respectively). Conversely, significantly more had achieved only Year 9 or below (33% compared with 16% of non-Indigenous respondents; ABS 2002).
  • In 2006, 21 percent of Indigenous 15 year olds were not participating in school education compared with only five percent of non-Indigenous 15 year olds (SCRGSP 2007: 11–17). In many areas, both urban and rural, there is a high rate of absenteeism, while in some isolated communities in remote Australia, Indigenous children have no access to formal education at all. In the year 2000, it was estimated that in one area of the Northern Territory, this was the case for an estimated 1,000 Indigenous children (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission cited in Coorey 2001).

In terms of employment indicators:

  • In 2002, under one-half (46%) of Indigenous respondents aged 15 and over were employed (including 12% who were on CDEP), while 14 percent were unemployed. The remainder were not in the workforce and many of these would have been in receipt of some form of welfare payment (ABS 2002).
  • The 2004–05 NATSIHS indicated that, after adjusting for age, the labour force participation rate for Indigenous people was about three-quarters that of non-Indigenous people (59% compared with 78% respectively), while the unemployment rates was about three times higher (13% and 4% respectively; SCRGSP 2007).

In terms of income levels, according to the 2002 NATSISS:

  • A significantly higher proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous persons aged 18 years and over fell within the two lowest quintiles for equivalised gross household income (70% and 39% respectively) while conversely, a significantly lower percentage fell within the two highest quintiles (15% and 43% respectively; ABS 2002).
  • Only one in three Indigenous respondents (31%) were in receipt of a wage or salary other than CDEP, while over half (52%) were dependent on a government pension or allowance. The figures were reversed for non-Indigenous persons, over half of whom (57%) were in receipt of wages while only 27% were dependent on welfare (ABS 2002).
  • Over one-half of Indigenous persons (54%) reported that they had experienced financial stress compared with just over one in 10 non-Indigenous persons (14%; ABS 2002).
  • In 2004–05, the median gross weekly equivalised household income for Indigenous people was $340 compared with $618 for non-Indigenous households (SCRGSP 2007).

In relation to housing:

  • In 2002, only about one-quarter (27%) of Indigenous adults lived in homes owned or being purchased by a member of that household. This was considerably lower than home ownership levels of non-Indigenous persons (73%). Conversely, a significantly higher proportion of Indigenous (70%) than non-Indigenous (24%) adults were in rental accommodation (ABS 2002).

Commentators (eg Coorey 2001; Gordon, Hallahan & Henry 2002; Mullighan 2008) have pointed to:

  • overcrowding and substandard conditions, with multiple family units living within the one house;
  • inappropriate housing design characterised by small living areas, inadequate toilet and ablution facilities, failure to incorporate open spaces and use of building materials that are completely inappropriate for the intensely hot and cold temperatures that characterise much of central Australia. The houses often reflect the needs of non-Indigenous nuclear families rather than multi-unit Indigenous households;
  • lack of regular maintenance; and
  • lack of appropriate security, such as lockable doors.

While educational standards, employment, housing and other social conditions will obviously vary from one Indigenous setting to another, residents in remote locations are likely to experience the greatest levels of disadvantage across all of these indicators. The Cape York Inquiry observed that:

Social problems are especially visible in small, poor, remote communities, whatever their race and culture. Such communities commonly have limited facilities and public services, high costs for basic goods and other services, little economic activity, few local opportunities, comparatively low education standards, high unemployment, welfare dependency and heavy alcohol consumption (Fitzgerald 2001: vol 1: 50).

As evidence of this, it found that in Cape York:

  • as many as 50 percent of students were absent from school on any given day;
  • in some communities, no Indigenous student had achieved Year 12 standard in recent years, with high drop-out rates from Year 8 onwards;
  • data from one school in the region indicated that during 11 years of schooling (from Year 2 to Year 12), students' reading age improved by less than two years; and
  • half of the community relied on CDEP for employment, while 37 percent were not in the labour force. Only 11 percent of the residents had some form of employment other than CDEP (Fitzgerald 2001).

The link between educational, employment, income and housing disadvantages and violence

Within in the general community, there is considerable evidence linking low educational attainment, high unemployment and a poor physical environment with an increased risk of violence (National Crime Prevention 1999a; 1999b). Again, though, empirical data relevant to Indigenous offenders generally, and Indigenous violent offenders in particular, is sparse.

While not focused specifically on violent offenders, a survey of Indigenous women prisoners in New South Wales (Lawrie 2003b) found that among this group:

  • the majority had low levels of education, with 70 percent leaving school before completing Year 10;
  • nine in 10 of those surveyed were not employed at the time of their most recent offence and, of those who were employed, most were in low paying manual jobs such as bar work, waitressing or rural seasonal labour;
  • just over four in 10 (42%) did not receive any formal income, even from social welfare payments, with one-quarter indicating that their sole source of income was crime; and
  • housing and accommodation was a serious problem, with at least 15 percent of those who were mothers indicating they were homeless or had no fixed address.

This study, however, was constrained by the absence of any comparable data on non-Indigenous women prisoners against which relative levels of Indigenous disadvantage could be measured. To overcome this, other studies have sought to compare levels of disadvantage among Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders. The findings have been somewhat mixed:

  • A study of violent offenders released from Australian prisons over a two year period found that a higher percentage (37%) of Indigenous prisoners had less than a Year 9 level of education compared with non-Indigenous prisoners (21%), while a lower proportion had completed Year 12 or post-secondary education (7% compared with 16% of non-Indigenous prisoners; Willis & Moore 2008).
  • An analysis of NHMP data for the period 2004–05 found significantly higher unemployment levels among Indigenous offenders. Of the 20 Indigenous homicide incidents recorded that year where relevant data were available, 90 percent were perpetrated by an offender who was not working, compared with 62 percent of the 121 non-Indigenous homicides (SCRGSP 2007).
  • In contrast, the DUCO survey of adult female prisoners found that Indigenous respondents were no more likely to have been in trouble at school than their non-Indigenous counterparts (Johnson 2004).
  • Similarly, among juvenile detainees surveyed by DUCO, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youths reported having troubled educational histories (Prichard & Payne 2005: 90). Somewhat unexpectedly though, non-Indigenous youths were twice as likely to have truanted or to have been suspended or expelled from school—a finding which may have more to do with the fact that, because a lower proportion of non-Indigenous youths are locked up in the first place, the ones that are incarcerated may be more 'troubled' than their Indigenous counterparts for whom incarceration is not an unusual outcome.

Overall, though, these studies are limited in that, even if they do indicate lower levels of economic and educational disadvantage among Indigenous than non-Indigenous offenders, this does not prove that such disadvantage actually causes higher levels of offending among Indigenous persons. Instead, these findings may simply reflect the fact that all Indigenous persons, offenders and non-offenders alike, have higher levels of disadvantage than non-Indigenous persons.

The only way to overcome this dilemma is to compare offenders and non-offenders within the Indigenous population itself. Any observed differences in characteristics between these two groups may provide a better indication of risk factors for offending than any Indigenous/non-Indigenous comparison. Again, however, the main source of such comparative data—the NATSIS—focuses not on differences in actual offending behaviour, but on differences in levels of contact with the police. Nor does the survey provide any data specific to violent offenders.

Nevertheless, it does point to some significant educational and economic differences between those Indigenous people who have, and those who have not, had contact with the criminal justice system. Secondary analysis of the NATSISS data by Weatherburn, Snowball and Hunter (2006) found that the likelihood of being charged by police at some point in their lives was significantly lower for those who had remained at school longer. Of those Indigenous persons who had achieved Year 12, only 21 percent had been charged by police, compared with 39 percent of those with Year 10 or 11 schooling and 43 percent of those with Year 9 schooling or below. The likelihood of being charged was also higher among:

  • those who were unemployed (58%) compared with those who were either employed (34%) or not in the labour force (34%);
  • those who, although technically employed, were on CDEP (44%) compared with those employed elsewhere (30%);
  • those who were dependent on welfare as their principle source of income (41%) compared with those who received wages and income from business or property (30%) or from some other source (30%); and
  • those who had experienced days when they did not have money (45%) compared with those who had not experienced such financial stress (31%).

Interestingly though, the likelihood of being charged was not related to either the size of the household or levels of overcrowding. Of those living in households with three or more dependents, 38 percent had been charged at some stage in their lives compared with 37 percent of those in smaller households. And of those in crowded households (ie where the number of people per bedroom exceeded two), 38 percent had been charged compared with 37 percent of those in non-crowded households.

Similar findings emerged when a different measure of police contact—that is, whether a person had been arrested in the previous five years—was used (Weatherburn, Snowball & Hunter 2008):

  • Of those Indigenous persons who had a schooling level of Year 9 or below, 21 percent had been arrested in the last five years, which was double that recorded by those individuals who had reached Year 12 (10%). Individuals who had obtained a post-school qualification (degree, diploma) were significantly less likely to have been arrested than those without such qualifications (18% compared with 15%).
  • Almost one-third of those who were unemployed had been arrested in the past five years, which was 2.7 times as high as arrest levels among employed persons (13%).
  • In terms of income levels, persons who were ranked in the lowest quintile of equivalised gross household income were 3.6 times as likely to have been arrested than those in the two highest quintiles (21% and 55% respectively).


There is empirical evidence linking offending to factors such as poor schooling, unemployment and poor housing within the general Australian population, possibly via their contribution to more proximal risk factors such as low self-esteem, high stress levels, a sense of alienation and helplessness, poor social functioning, repressed anger and boredom (National Crime Prevention 1999a). Such links are also likely to apply within Indigenous communities, where levels of disadvantage are particularly pronounced. Some issues, however, have particular significance for Indigenous violence. For example, various government inquiries have posited a link between overcrowded households and the sexual abuse of Indigenous children. Such overcrowding, it is argued, provides potential offenders with more opportunities to abuse children because of their close proximity, the lack of appropriate security and the absence of careful oversight by parents. Overcrowding may also increase children's access to pornographic material and increase the likelihood of them witnessing adult sexual behaviour, which in turn, may encourage them act out similar behaviours, using other children as their victims (eg see Wild & Anderson 2007; Gordon, Hallahan & Henry 2002; Mullighan 2008).

The heavy dependence on welfare payments, combined with the prominent role played by CDEP, particularly in semi-remote and remote communities, has also generated considerable concern in recent years. Pearson (2001a) argues that welfare policies have produced an artificial economy in many communities which is in direct contrast to the 'real' economics of both traditional Indigenous subsistence and the broader market economy. In his view, by its failure to place any demands of reciprocity or responsibility on the welfare recipient, 'passive welfare' dependence is an important contributor to high levels of social dysfunction, including alcohol abuse and violence. Such dysfunction is, he considers, quite separate from the social dysfunction generated by colonial dispossession and dislocation. Other commentators have also pointed to a 'culture of defeat' generated by prolonged welfare dependence (Fitzgerald 2001). The availability of CDEP has not, it is claimed, been effective in overcoming these problems, because, in many instances, it does not offer meaningful work, is only available for several hours a day and involves tedious tasks which do not include any training for, or pathway towards, full time employment opportunities. The Cape York inquiry also noted that, because CDEP is not available to those individuals who remain at school, it provides an incentive for young persons to leave school at the earliest opportunity (Fitzgerald 2001). CDEP has attracted considerable negative media attention since its initial abolition, then reinstatement, as part of the Australian Government's Emergency Response, with claims that its 'pretend jobs' have become an obstacle to real employment, thereby perpetuating a cycle of joblessness and family dysfunction (The Advertiser 19 August 2008). Nevertheless, there is some indication that those on CDEP are less likely to have contact with the criminal justice system than those who are unemployed, thereby suggesting that being on CDEP may, in fact, operate as a protective, rather than as a risk factor, for violence (Weatherburn, Snowball & Hunter 2008, 2006).

Last updated
3 November 2017