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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2005  
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Contents >> Other areas of social concern >> Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: contact with the law

Crime and Justice: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: Contact with the Law

In 2002, taking into account the different age structures of the populations, twice as many Indigenous Australians were victims of physical or threatened violence compared with non-Indigenous Australians.

Imprisonment and victimisation can have serious and long-term implications for offenders and victims. Prisoners experience higher rates of substance use and mental health issues (endnote 1). Victims of violent crime can suffer physically, emotionally and financially. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are over represented in Australian prisons and greater proportions report being victims of violent crime in comparison to non-Indigenous Australians.

Data from the 2002 NATSISS show that 24% of Indigenous Australians aged 15 years or over reported being the victim of physical or threatened violence in the 12 months prior to the survey, 16% reported being arrested and 7% reported being incarcerated in the five years prior to the survey.


Data collections

Most of the data used in this article are drawn from the 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS). The 2002 NATSISS collected data about Indigenous persons aged 15 years or over. The NATSISS provides data about contact with law enforcement, victimisation and many other social and economic circumstances such as employment, education and health. See also information published in National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (ABS cat. no. 4714.0).

Indigenous refers to people who identified themselves as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin.

Some of the data in this article have been adjusted to take into account the differences in the age structures of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian populations. That is, data has been age standardised. Selected data items have been age-standardised on the basis that these topics are strongly influenced by age. Age-standardised data are used for comparison between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations only.

Some data on Indigenous prisoners are drawn from the ABS 2004 National Prisoner Census. The ABS National Prisoner Census provides a snapshot of the number of prisoners in Australia. Prison census data are used in this article to compare the level of imprisonment in the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, while 2002 NATSISS data are used to show the relationships between incarceration and other social and economic circumstances.


INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS IN CUSTODY

The over-representation of Indigenous Australians in prisons was drawn to public attention by the 1987–1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. One of the main findings of the Royal Commission was that the high number of deaths of Aboriginal people in prisons was a result of the high rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal Australians rather than different treatment for Aboriginal prisoners.

Indigenous Australians continue to be over represented in our prisons and make up a high proportion of deaths in custody. In 2003, 20% of prisoners in Australia (4,818 prisoners) identified as Indigenous (endnote 2), and 10 of the 39 deaths that occurred in prison custody (26%) were Indigenous prisoners. (endnote 3)

At June 2004, there were 5,048 Indigenous persons in prisons across Australia (21% of all prisoners) (endnote 2). After taking into account the age differences between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in 2004, Indigenous persons were 11 times more likely to be in prison compared with non-Indigenous persons.

Indigenous prisoners tend to be serving shorter sentences and have higher rates of prior imprisonment. In 2004, the median expected time to serve for Indigenous prisoners was 15 months, compared with 25 months for non-Indigenous prisoners. Over three quarters (77%) of Indigenous prisoners had prior imprisonment in comparison to 53% of non-Indigenous prisoners.

Data from the 2002 NATSISS show that Indigenous people who had been incarcerated had higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes. Over half (58%) of Indigenous persons who were not still at school and had been incarcerated in the last five years had not completed Year 10, compared with 40% of those who had not been incarcerated in the last five years.

Incarceration usually follows frequent and/or serious offending and contact with the criminal justice system. Higher proportions of Indigenous people who had been incarcerated in the last five years, compared with those who had not been incarcerated, were first formally charged in early adolescence and had been arrested more than once in the last five years.

Higher proportions of those who had been incarcerated had been removed from their natural families and/or had relatives removed from their natural families. This disruption in social attachment early in life often has serious and long-term consequences for those who have been removed and their families. (endnote 4)

In every state and territory of Australia Indigenous Australians were more likely than non-Indigenous Australians to be in prison. In 2004, Western Australia recorded the highest age standardised ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous imprisonment, as the Indigenous imprisonment rate was 17 times the non-Indigenous imprisonment rate. Tasmania recorded the lowest ratio, where Indigenous rates were four times the non-Indigenous rates.

PRISONERS(a): SELECTED INDICATORS - 2004

Indigenous
Non-Indigenous
Unit
Males
Females
Persons
Males
Females
Persons

Imprisonment rate
rate(b)
n.a.
n.a.
1,416.9
n.a.
n.a.
129.0
Mean expected time to serve
months
34.5
17.0
33.2
44.6
30.6
43.7
Median expected time to serve
months
16.2
9.0
15.3
26.6
15.1
25.4
Prior imprisonment
%
77.4
70.0
76.8
53.7
43.7
53.1
Australia
no.
4,624
424
5,048
17,561
1,214
18,775

(a) Excludes prisoners whose Indigenous status was unknown.
(b) Age standardised rate per 100,000 adult population.

Source: ABS 2004 National Prisoner Census.

Concepts

In the 2002 NATSISS, contact with law enforcement was measured by asking respondents whether they had ever been formally charged (and if so, at what age they were first formally charged), whether they had been arrested in the last five years (and if so, how often), and whether they had been incarcerated in that period.

Incarceration was broadly defined to include all persons aged 15 years and over who had spent any time in jail in the last five years at the time of the survey.

2002 NATSISS respondents who had been formally charged by police at any time in their life were asked to recall their first formal charge. The accuracy of this data is dependent on the accuracy of the respondent’s recall.

Equivalised gross household income is a standardised income measure which has been adjusted for the different income needs of households of different size and composition. It takes into account the greater needs of larger households and the economies of scale achieved by people living together.

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE(a): WHETHER INCARCERATED BY SELECTED INDICATORS - 2002

Incarcerated in
the last 5 years
Not incarcerated
in the last 5 years
Total(b)

%
%
%

Unemployed for 1 year or more
9.6
3.0
3.5
Highest year of schooling completed Year 9 or below(c)
57.9
39.7
41.1
Fair/Poor self assessed health
25.6(d)
23.1(d)
23.3
Has a disability or long-term health condition
45.3(d)
35.8(d)
36.5
Person and/or relative removed from natural family
51.8
36.5
37.6
First formal charge at 15 years or below
35.5
7.0
9.0
Arrested more than once in last 5 years
63.7
5.1
9.3
Victim of physical or threatened violence in last 12 months
44.1
22.8
24.3

'000
'000
'000

Indigenous persons
20.0
262.1
282.2

$
$
$

Mean weekly equivalised gross household income
302.0
393.0
387.0

(a) Aged 15 years or over.
(b) Total includes persons who did not state whether they had been incarcerated in the last five years.
(c) Proportions of persons not still at school. Includes persons who never attended school.
(d) Difference between incarcerated and not incarcerated is not statistically significant.

Source: ABS 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey.

Ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous imprisonment(a) - 2002-04
Graph: Ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous imprisonment(a) - 2002-04



CONTACT WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT

In 2002, over one in three (35%) Indigenous Australians aged 15 years or over reported having been formally charged at some time in their lives. Approximately one in six (16%) Indigenous persons reported having been arrested in the last five years.

The proportion of men who had been charged was more than double the proportion of women (50% compared with 21%). High proportions of both Indigenous men (24%) and Indigenous women (9%) reported being arrested in the last five years. The frequency of arrests of Indigenous people declined with age.

Support from family and community can help to prevent re-offending. However, offenders can have difficulty reintegrating with their family and community following contact with the criminal justice system. Indigenous people who had been arrested in the last five years were more likely to report not having access to support from someone outside their household in a time of crisis (15% compared with 9%). A greater proportion of Indigenous people who had been arrested in the last five years had moved house in the last 12 months compared with other Indigenous people.

Contact with law enforcement both reflects and leads to social and economic disadvantages. Unemployment was higher for Indigenous people who reported being arrested in the last five years (29% compared with 11% of those not arrested) and employment was lower (36% compared with 48%).

A higher proportion of Indigenous people who had come into contact with law enforcement reported being victims of personal violence. About half (47%) of Indigenous people who reported being arrested also reported being the victim of physical or threatened violence compared with 20% of those who had not been arrested.

Indigenous people(a): frequency of arrest(b) - 2002

Graph: Indigenous people: frequency of  arrest - 2002


INDIGENOUS PEOPLE(a): SELECTED INDICATORS OF SOCIAL ATTACHMENT - 2002

Arrested in
the last 5 years
Not arrested in
the last 5 years

%
%

Not involved in social activities
11.4(b)
9.7(b)
Does not have support in a time of crisis
14.8
8.6
Did not participate in sport or recreational activities
51.6(b)
50.5(b)
Did not undertake voluntary work
75.4(b)
71.7(b)
Not married(c)
57.8(b)
52.8(b)
Moved house in last 12 months
46.1
27.9
No access to motor vehicle or no license
61.1
41.9
Cannot or often has difficulty getting to the places needed
17.4
11.0

'000
'000

Indigenous persons
46.3
235.9

(a) Aged 15 years or over.
(b) Difference between arrested and not arrested is not statistically significant.
(c) Neither registered nor de facto marriage.

Source: ABS 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey.


VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE

...family violence

Family violence and other violent crimes are widespread in many Indigenous communities (endnote 5). In 2002, one in five (21%) Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over reported that family violence was a common problem in their neighbourhood or community. Survey respondents reported family violence as being a community problem much more in remote areas than in non-remote areas. It was also more frequently reported as a community problem by people living in overcrowded dwellings.

Other neighbourhood or community problems including assault, sexual assault and generally high levels of neighbourhood conflict were also more frequently identified as community problems by Indigenous persons in remote areas or living in overcrowded dwellings.

Indigenous people(a): proportion reporting selected neighbourhood or community problems by remoteness - 2002
Graph: Indigenous people(a): proportion reporting selected neighbourhood or community problems by remoteness - 2002


Victimisation

The 2002 NATSISS questions used to measure victimisation in non-remote areas were the same as those used in the ABS 2002 General Social Survey, and asked about attempted, threatened or actual physical force or violence used. In remote communities, testing resulted in the questions being modified to ask "In the last year, did anybody start a fight with you or beat you up?" or "try to or say they were going to hit you or fight with you?". The intention of this modified language was to capture the same concept as that being measured in non-remote areas.

Remoteness

The ABS Remoteness classification is based on road distance to different sized urban centres, where the population size is considered to govern the range and type of services available. In this article remote areas include the Remoteness categories Remote Australia and Very Remote Australia, and non-remote areas include Major Cities of Australia, Inner Regional Australia and Outer Regional Australia. For further information see Statistical Geography: Volume 1 - Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC), 2001 (ABS cat. no. 1216.0).


...personal violence

In 2002, 24% of Indigenous people aged 15 years and over had been victims of physical or threatened violence in the last 12 months. Victimisation declined with age, with the highest level of victimisation reported by 15–24 year olds, and the lowest levels reported by those aged 55 years and over.

Data from the ABS 2002 General Social Survey and the 2002 NATSISS (endnote 6) show that, after removing the effects of the different age structures of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, Indigenous people recorded higher levels of victimisation than non-Indigenous people (20% compared with 9%).

People who are victims of violence may also experience other disadvantages. In 2002, Indigenous people who were victims of physical or threatened violence were more likely to be unemployed than those who did not report victimisation (21% compared with 11%) and less likely to be employed (39% compared with 49%).

Indigenous people who were victims of physical or threatened violence were more likely than those who did not report victimisation to assess their health as Fair or Poor (28% compared with 22%). Victims of physical or threatened violence were also more likely than those who did not report victimisation to have a disability or long-term health condition (43% compared with 34%).

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE(a): PROPORTION REPORTING SELECTED NEIGHBOURHOOD OR COMMUNITY PROBLEMS BY OVERCROWDING(b) - 2002

Neighbourhood or community problem reported
Dwelling requires
additional
bedroom/s(b)
Dwelling does
not require additional bedroom/s(b)
Total

%
%
%

Family violence
31.6
17.6
21.2
Assault
33.6
15.1
19.9
Sexual assault
12.6(c)
6.5(c)
8.1
Levels of neighbourhood conflict
26.2
10.9
14.1

'000
'000
'000

Indigenous people
72.6
209.7
282.2

(a) Aged 15 years or over.
(b) Indicates potential overcrowding based on the number of bedrooms in a given dwelling and household demographics such as the number of usual residents and their age and sex. The model used to calculate this measure is the Canadian National Occupancy Standard for housing appropriateness.
(c) Difference between persons living in dwellings that required additional bedroom/s and other persons is not statistically significant.

Source: ABS 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey.

Indigenous people(a): victimisation(b) by selected health indicators — 2002

Graph: Indigenous people(a): victimisation(b) by selected health indicators — 2002



ENDNOTES

1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2004, Australia's Health 2004, AIHW, Canberra.

2 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2003, Prisoners in Australia, cat. no. 4517.0, ABS, Canberra.

3 McCall, M 2004, Deaths in Custody in Australia: 2003 National Deaths in Custody Program (NDICP) Annual Report, Technical and background paper no. 12, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.

4 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. HREOC, Sydney.

5 Gordon, S, Hallahan K, Henry, D, 2002 Putting the picture together: Inquiry into Response by Government Agencies to Complaints of Family Violence and Abuse in Aboriginal Communities. Department of Premier and Cabinet, Western Australia, Perth.

6 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, cat. no. 4714.0, ABS, Canberra.


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