The over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the criminal justice system is one of the most significant social justice issues in Australia, with the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in all stages of the criminal justice system far exceeding their representation in the community.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 3 per cent of the Australian population and they make up 28% of the total prison population, that is an imprisonment rate 13 times higher than the non-indigenous rate. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also 7.9 times more likely to be taken into police custody than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and are 12 times more likely to be in community based correction programs.
The rates of incarceration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are worsening. Between 2001 and 2010, the imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women increased by 59% and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men by 35%. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women now represent the fastest growing prison population in Australia with an increase of 20 per cent in the last 12 months alone.
Drivers of crime
The underlying driving factors of crime are varied and complex. Evidence has demonstrated that individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system are highly likely to experience multiple characteristics of severe social and economic disadvantage.
Key drivers that contribute to offence rates include:
• inadequate or inappropriate education
• inadequate housing
• health issues including mental health
• access to employment
• family violence
• alcohol and other drug use
It's time for a new approach
Tough on crime campaigns that promote increased or mandatory sentences as the way to protect the community rely on the myth that harsher sentences deter reoffending. Yet the evidence shows that prison fails to deter, rehabilitate, meet public concerns and make communities safer. We need to move beyond "tough on crime" approaches to a "smart on crime" solution-focused approach to justice.
We need a dedicated focus on reducing incarceration from all levels of government, and done so in real partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives. Government should set targets through the Council of Australian Government's (COAG) framework for Closing the Gap in Indigenous disadvantage and implement a justice reinvestment approach.
ANTaR, along with leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, community and human rights organisations launched the Change the Record Campaign in April 2015. This national campaign seeks to address the disproportionate rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the high levels of violence experienced, particularly by woman and children. Read more about Change the Record.
Change the Record is now a central part of ANTaR's work on Justice issues.