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Tier 2 - Determinants of health

2.11 Contact with the criminal justice system

Key messages

  • On an average day in 2019–20, 2,493 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people were under youth justice supervision, including 2,017 aged 10–17. Indigenous young people were 16 times as likely as non-Indigenous young people to be under supervision (140 compared with 8.5 per 10,000 population aged 10–17).
  • The rate of Indigenous young people aged 10–17 under youth justice supervision fell by 26% between 2009–10 to 2019–20, with a 27% decline in community supervision and 20% decline in detention.
  • Western Australia and New South Wales were key drivers of the national trend in youth justice supervision, with declines in the rate of 48% and 43%, respectively. The rate also declined significantly in Victoria and South Australia (35%–36%).
  • From 2009–10 to 2019–20, the rate of young Indigenous Australians aged 10–17 in sentenced detention declined by 47%.
  • Indigenous adults were imprisoned at 12 times the rate of non-Indigenous adults in 2019 (2,088 and 173 per 100,000, respectively). The imprisonment rate for Indigenous adults increased 61% between 2006 and 2019, compared with an increase of 36% for non-Indigenous adults.
  • In 2018, 3 in 4 prison entrants (75%) said they were current smokers. Indigenous prison entrants were almost twice as likely as non-Indigenous entrants to be rated as being at high risk of alcohol-related harm (46% compared with 26%), and had a higher prevalence of hepatitis B antibody (32% compared with 8% of non-Indigenous entrants).
  • In 2018, Indigenous prison dischargees were less likely to report having a Medicare card available on release (56%) compared with non-Indigenous dischargees (71%).
  • An evaluation of the Tiwi youth diversion program by the Tiwi Islands Youth Development and Diversion Unit (Northern Territory) found it was effective in reducing contact with the criminal justice system and that participants had lower rates of contact with police in the year following the program.
  • The Closing the Gap Clearinghouse identified promising practices of Indigenous youth justice programs such as the importance of having adequately resourced, culturally appropriate and competent services; effective collaboration; addressing multiple and complex needs of offenders; and family engagement and parental training.

Why is it important?

The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have never been incarcerated, and in 2014–15, most had not been arrested within the last 5 years (ABS 2016). However, Indigenous Australians experience contact with the criminal justice system—as both offenders and victims—at much higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians (Productivity Commission 2016; Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991; Senate Community Affairs References Committee 2010).

Imprisonment compounds existing social and economic disadvantage and affects family, children, and the broader community with intergenerational effects. This cycle can lead to a normalisation of incarceration where prison is no longer a deterrent but instead a fact of life (Brown 2010). Imprisonment also has social and health effects following release, such as adverse employment, financial, housing, mental or other health consequences (Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee 2013; Weatherburn 2014; Woodward 2003). Indigenous offenders are more likely than non-Indigenous offenders to have additional contact with the justice system, and Indigenous prisoners are more likely to have served a prior prison sentence (Allard 2010).

Weatherburn (2014) identified four key risk factors for Indigenous offending: exposure to child neglect (see measure 2.12 Child protection); school attendance and performance (see measure 2.04 Literacy and numeracy); unemployment (see measure 2.07 Employment); and drug and alcohol abuse (see measures 2.16 Risky alcohol consumption and 2.17 Drug and other substance use, including inhalants) (Weatherburn 2014).

The effects of these risk factors, along with child removals, poverty, higher rates of stressful life events, psychological distress, and mental health issues, are linked to the higher rates of contact with the criminal justice system (Australian Medical Association 2015; McCausland et al. 2017; Shepherd et al. 2017).

In July 2020, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement) identified the importance of addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (young people and adults) in the criminal justice system. To support effort on these outcomes the National Agreement specifically outlines the following targets to direct policy attention and monitor progress:

  • Target 10—By 2031, reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults held in incarceration by at least 15 per cent
  • Target 11—By 2031, reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (10-17 years) in detention by at least 30 per cent.

This HPF measure includes data related to these targets and some of the supporting indicators, such as the proportion of young people entering the youth justice system aged 10–13; the unsentenced detention rates for Indigenous young people; and for Indigenous adults, the proportion of prisoners previously incarcerated. For more information on the Closing the Gap targets, see the Closing the Gap Information Repository.

Findings

What does the data tell us about youth justice supervision?

The youth justice system is the set of processes and practices for managing children and young people who have committed or allegedly committed an offence when aged 10–17. People aged 18 and over may also be supervised in the youth justice system if they were 18 or over when they were apprehended for a crime (allegedly) committed when they were 17 or younger; if their existing supervision continues once they turn 18; or if a court determines that they should be detained in a youth justice facility due to their vulnerability or immaturity (reasons vary depending on the state or territory) (AIHW 2020a).

In 2019–20 a total of 4,497 Indigenous young people were under youth justice supervision at some time during the year, with 87% (3,909) of these young people aged 10–17 and 13% (588) aged 18 and over (AIHW 2021a).

On an average day in 2019–20:

  • 2,493 Indigenous young people were under youth justice supervision. This included 2,017 Indigenous young people aged 10–17, or 1.4% of the Indigenous population in this age group.
  • 47% of all young people under youth justice supervision were Indigenous.
  • 79% of Indigenous young people under youth justice supervision were male, which was similar to the proportion for non-Indigenous young people (81%).
  • 6.5% of Indigenous young people under youth justice supervision were aged 10–13, compared with 2.7% of non-Indigenous young people (AIHW 2021a).

In 2019–20, Indigenous young people entered youth justice supervision at a younger age than non-Indigenous young people. During the year, 38% of Indigenous young people serving their first period of supervision were aged 10–13, compared with around 14% of non-Indigenous young people (AIHW 2021a).

Type of supervision

Supervision may take place while young people are unsentenced or sentenced and, in each case, can take place in the community or a secure detention facility. Most young people under youth justice supervision are supervised in the community rather than in detention (AIHW 2021a).

On an average day in 2019–20, 83% (2,080) of Indigenous young people under youth justice supervision were under community-based supervision, while 17% (428) were in secure detention facilities.

During 2019–20, there were 4,036 Indigenous Australians under community-based supervision. Of this, 86% (3,486) were aged 10–17, a higher proportion than non-Indigenous young people aged 10–17 (78%). The majority (77% or 3,102) of Indigenous Australians under community-based supervision were males.

There were 2,157 Indigenous young people in detention at some time during 2019–20 and of these, 95% (2,041) were aged 10–17. On an average day during 2019–20, there were 428 Indigenous young people in detention, of which 86% (370) were aged 10–17, a higher proportion than non-Indigenous young people aged 10–17 (74%).

In 2019–20 on an average day:

  • 46% of young people under community-based supervision were Indigenous (2,080 of 4,490)
  • half (50%) of the 863 young people in secure detention facilities were Indigenous (428) (AIHW 2021a).

Youth justice supervision and child protection

Of the 3,654 Indigenous young people under youth justice supervision in 2018–19, 61% (2,222) had also received child protection services in the previous 5-year period, between July 2014 and June 2019. This was higher than the proportion among non-Indigenous young people under youth justice supervision (48%, or 2,021). Note that New South Wales was excluded from these calculations as they do not provide standard child protection national minimum dataset data (AIHW 2020b) .

Multiple periods of supervision and recidivism

For young people who completed a period of supervision during 2019–20, a higher proportion of Indigenous young people had completed multiple periods of supervision than non-Indigenous young people (20% and 15%, respectively).

The average length of time under supervision was 20 days longer for Indigenous young people (203 days) than non-Indigenous young people (183 days) (AIHW 2021a).

Indigenous young people who were released from sentenced community-based supervision during 2018–19 were more likely than non‑Indigenous young people to return to sentenced youth justice supervision within 12 months:

  • 63% of Indigenous males, compared with 50% of non-Indigenous males
  • 51% of Indigenous females, compared with 37% of non-Indigenous females.

This analysis is for young people released during the period 2018–19 (rather than more recent 2019–20 data) to allow a full 12 months after the last possible release date in the 2018–19 financial year. The analysis is also limited to those aged 10–16 (rather than 10–17) to ensure that those who returned to sentenced supervision within 12 months of release were aged under 17 at the time of offence (the upper age limit of the youth justice system). 

Among young people released from detention, the rate of returning to sentenced youth justice supervision within 12 months was similar for Indigenous and non‑Indigenous males (both 81%), but higher for Indigenous females compared with non-Indigenous females (78% and 64%) (Table D2.11.6, Figure 2.11.1).

Figure 2.11.1: Proportion of young people aged 10–16 years released from sentenced supervision in 2018–19 who returned to sentenced supervision within 12 months, by Indigenous status, sex and type of sentenced supervision

This column chart shows that the proportion of young people aged 10–16 who returned to sentenced supervision within 12 months was higher for Indigenous Australians than for non-Indigenous Australians. In particular, 78% of Indigenous females returned to sentenced supervision compared with 64% for non-Indigenous females, while Indigenous and non-Indigenous males had a 81% return rate. For the same period, 63% of Indigenous males and 51% of Indigenous females who were released from community-based supervision returned to sentenced supervision within 12 months, compared with % 50and 37% for non-Indigenous males and females.

Note: Calculations are based on the number of young people aged 10–16 at the time of release from sentenced supervision (during 2018–19), to ensure that those who returned to sentenced supervision within 12 months of release were aged up to 17 and therefore still in the youth justice system (during 2018–19 and/or 2019–20).

Source: Table D2.11.6. AIHW Youth Justice National Minimum Dataset (YJ NMDS).

Across states and territories, for Indigenous young people, Queensland had the highest rate of returning to sentenced supervision within 12 months (65%), and the lowest rate of return was in Victoria (51%) (Table D2.11.22).

Rates of youth justice supervision

Nationally, on an average day in 2019–20, the rate of youth justice supervision among Indigenous young people aged 10–17 was 16 times the rate for non-Indigenous young people (140 compared with 8.5 per 10,000 population).

To describe trends in youth justice data, linear regression has been used to calculate the per cent change over time. This means that information from all years of the specified time period are used, rather than only the first and last points in the series (see Statistical terms and methods).

Between 2009–10 and 2019–20, the rate of supervision for Indigenous young people aged 10–17 declined by 26%, and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people narrowed by 24% (based on rate difference) (Table D2.11.1, Figure 2.11.2).

The reduction in the gap reflects a larger absolute reduction in the rate for Indigenous young people than for non-Indigenous young people (annual decline of 5 compared with 0.7 young people in supervision per 10,000 population). However, the percentage reduction in youth supervision relative to the rate in 2009–10 was higher for non-Indigenous young people than for Indigenous young people (decreasing by 46% compared with by 26% for Indigenous young people).  As a result, the relative difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people in rates of supervision (based on rate ratio) generally increased over the period, from about 13 times as high for Indigenous young people between 2009–10 and 2011–12, compared with about 17 times as high from 2016–17 to 2019–20 (Figure 2.11.12).

Figure 2.11.2: National rate of supervision of young people aged 10–17 on an average day, by Indigenous status, 2009–10 to 2019–20

This line chart shows that, nationally, the rate of supervision of Indigenous young people aged 10–17 on an average day was 140 per 10,000 and 8.5 per 10,000 for non-Indigenous young people. As a result, the relative difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people in rates of youth detention (based on rate ratio) generally increased over the period, from about 13 times as high for Indigenous young people between 2009–10 and 2011–12, compared with about 17 times as high from 2016–17 to 2019–20.

Source: Table D2.11.1. AIHW Youth Justice National Minimum Dataset (YJ NMDS).

For Indigenous young people aged 10–17, on an average day in 2019–20, the rate of supervision was highest in Western Australia and lowest in Tasmania (201 and 74 per 10,000, respectively). The rate for Indigenous young people in Western Australia was 2.7 times the rate of Indigenous young people in Tasmania. Across all jurisdictions, the rate of supervision on an average day was higher for Indigenous than non-Indigenous young people. The largest relative difference was in the Northern Territory where the rate for Indigenous young people was 24 times that of non-Indigenous young people (Table D2.11.1, Figure 2.11.3).

Figure 2.11.3: Rate of supervision of young people aged 10–17, by jurisdiction and Indigenous status, on an average day in 2019–20

This column chart shows that, nationally, the rate of supervision of Indigenous young people aged 10–17 on an average day was 140 per 10,000 and 9 per 10,000 for non-Indigenous young people. For Indigenous young people, it was highest in Western Australia (201 per 10, 000), followed by the Queensland (192 per 10,000), and lowest in Tasmania (74 per 10,000).

Source: Table D2.11.1. AIHW Youth Justice National Minimum Dataset (YJ NMDS).

Between 2009–10 and 2019–20, Western Australia and New South Wales were key drivers of the national trend, with the rate of Indigenous young people aged 10–17 in supervision declining by 48% (from 389 to 201 per 10,000) and 43% (from 178 to 105 per 10,000) in these jurisdictions, respectively. The rate for Victoria and South Australia also declined by 35%–36%, while the rate for Queensland, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory did not change significantly over the same period. Time trend information for the Northern Territory was only available from 2012–13, however there was no statistically significant change between 2012–13 and 2019–20. For non-Indigenous young people, between 2009–10 and 2019–20 (excluding the Northern Territory), the rate declined in all jurisdictions, with reductions ranging between 28% (in Queensland) and 71% (in both South Australia and Tasmania) (Table D2.11.1).

Rates of community supervision

Nationally, on an average day in 2019–20, there were 2,080, Indigenous young people under community supervision, with 80% (1,661) aged 10–17 (AIHW 2021a). The rate of community supervision for Indigenous young people aged 10–17 nationally was 116 per 10,000 population, 16 times the rate for non-Indigenous young people (7.2 per 10,000).

The highest rate of community supervision for Indigenous young people was in Queensland (161 per 10,000) and the lowest was in Tasmania (63 per 10,000). Across states and territories, the rate of community supervision among Indigenous young people ranged between 4.6 times as high as for non-Indigenous youth (in Tasmania) to 21 times as high (in the Northern Territory).

From 2009–10 to 2019–20, the rate of community supervision among Indigenous young people aged 10–17 declined significantly by 27%. Among the jurisdictions, the largest statistically significant declines for Indigenous young people over this period were in Western Australia (by 49%), Victoria (43%), New South Wales (41%) and South Australia (39%). There was no significant change in the rate for Queensland, Tasmania or the Australian Capital Territory (Table D2.11.30). Time trend information for the Northern Territory was only available from 2012–13, however there was no statistically significant change between 2012–13 and 2019–20.

Rates of youth detention

On an average night in 2019–20, 26 per 10,000 Indigenous Australians aged 10–17 were in detention, compared with 1.4 per 10,000 non-Indigenous people aged 10–17. That is, Indigenous young people aged 10–17 were 18 times as likely as non-Indigenous young people in the same age group to be in detention on an average night (Table D2.11.29).

Nationally, from 2009–10 to 2019–20, the rate of Indigenous young people aged 10–17 in detention declined by 20% (from 38 to 26 per 10,000). The rate for non-Indigenous young people declined by 21% (from 1.8 to 1.4 per 10,000).

Over the same period, the absolute gap in the rate of youth detention between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people aged 10–17 declined by 20% (from a rate difference of 36 to 24 per 10,000). The relative difference in the rate of youth detention ranged between 18 and 25 times as high for Indigenous young people as for non-Indigenous young people (Figure 2.11.4).

Across the states and territories, the rate of Indigenous young people aged 10–17 in detention declined in New South Wales and Western Australia (by 50% and 42% respectively) but increased in Queensland (by 61%).

Looking separately at sentenced and unsentenced detention among Indigenous young people aged 10–17, between 2009–10 and 2019–20:

  • the rate of sentenced detention declined by 47%, from 16 to 6.7 per 10,000 population nationally, while there was no clear trend for unsentenced detention.
  • both sentenced and unsentenced detention declined in New South Wales (56% and 46%, respectively) and Western Australia (54% and 29%, respectively).
  • in Queensland, the rate of sentenced detention did not change significantly but the rate of unsentenced detention doubled (103% increase) (Table D2.11.29).
Figure 2.11.4: National detention rate of young people aged 10–17 on an average day and changes in the gap, by Indigenous status, 2009–10 to 2019–20

This line chart shows that, nationally, the rate of detention of Indigenous youth aged 10–17 on an average day was 26 per 10,000 and 1.4 per 10,000 for non-Indigenous youth. As a result, the absolute gap between the rate of youth detention between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people aged 10–17 declined by 20% (from a rate difference of 36 to 24 per 10,000).

Source: Table D2.11.29 AIHW Youth Justice National Minimum Dataset (YJ NMDS).

What does the data tell us about adult imprisonment?

Adult prisoners by Indigenous status and gender

On 30 June 2019, there were 11,866 Indigenous prisoners in Australia, based on information from the National Prisoner Census (Table D2.11.7). These numbers remained stable from 2018, increasing by less than 1%.

At June 2019, Indigenous prisoners represented 28% of all prisoners. Over 1 in 4 (27%) male prisoners were Indigenous, and 1 in 3 (33%) female prisoners were Indigenous (Table D2.11.8). Around 1 in 3 (34%) of Indigenous prisoners (4,011) were unsentenced, a similar proportion to non-Indigenous prisoners (33%) (Table D2.11.9).

Imprisonment rates by Indigenous status

At June 2019, Indigenous adults were imprisoned at a rate of 2,088 per 100,000 population—2% of the Indigenous adult population—compared with 173 per 100,000 non-Indigenous adults, after adjusting for differences in the age structure between the 2 populations. Indigenous adults were imprisoned at a rate 12 times the rate of non-Indigenous adults (Table D2.11.7).

There was an increase of 61% in the imprisonment rate for Indigenous adults (from 1,337 to 2,088 per 100,000) between 2006 and 2019, compared with an increase of 36% for non-Indigenous adults (from 132 to 173 per 100,000), after adjusting for differences in the age structure between the 2 populations (Table D2.11.11, Figure 2.11.5).

Figure 2.11.5: Age-standardised national adult imprisonment rate, by Indigenous status, 2006 to 2019

Figure 2.11.5: Age-standardised national adult imprisonment rate

Source: Table D2.11.11. AIHW and ABS analysis of ABS Prisoners in Australia 2019.

Imprisonment rates by jurisdiction

By jurisdiction, the highest rate of imprisonment of Indigenous adults at 30 June 2019 was in Western Australia (4,106 per 100,000), followed by the Northern Territory (2,837 per 100,000). The lowest imprisonment rate of Indigenous adults was in Tasmania (777 per 100,000) (Table D2.11.8, Figure 2.11.6).

Figure 2.11.6: Adult imprisonment rate, Indigenous adults, by jurisdiction, 30 June 2019

Source: Table D2.11.8. AIHW and ABS analysis of ABS Prisoners in Australia 2019.

The imprisonment rates of Indigenous adults increased between 2006 and 2019 in all jurisdictions—the largest increases were in the Australian Capital Territory (from 627 to 1,707 per 100,000) and Victoria (from 649 to 2,133 per 100,000), while the smallest increase was in New South Wales (from 1,359 to 1,684 per 100,000) (Table D2.11.12).

Recidivism, sentence length and nature of offences

At June 2019, there were more Indigenous prisoners (81%) than non-Indigenous prisoners (50%) who had a prior adult imprisonment sentence (Table D2.11.9).

The median aggregate sentence was lower for Indigenous prisoners (2 years) than for non-Indigenous prisoners (3.5 years). Three-quarters (75%) of sentences for Indigenous prisoners were under 5 years, compared with 57% for non-Indigenous prisoners (ABS 2018) (Table 26).

At 30 June 2019, the majority of Indigenous prisoners (65%) were in prison due to violence-related offences and offences that cause harm, compared with 53% of non-Indigenous prisoners. Indigenous prisoners were more likely than non-Indigenous prisoners to have ‘acts intended to cause injury’ as their most serious charge (34% compared with 19%) (Table D2.11.21). The number of Indigenous prisoners with ‘acts intended to cause injury’ as their most serious charge grew from 2,499 in 2010 to 4,009 in 2019 (Table D2.11.20). At 30 June 2019, a smaller proportion of Indigenous than non-Indigenous prisoners were in prison for illicit drug offences (4% compared with 20%, respectively) and homicide (5% compared with 9%, respectively). In 2019, 1.3% of Indigenous prisoners had ‘traffic and vehicle regulatory offences’ as their most serious charge—this has decreased from 4.2% in 2010 (Table D2.11.20).

Findings from the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey

In 2014–15, an estimated 22% of Indigenous males aged 35 and over had been incarcerated at some time in their life, based on self-reported information from the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (Social Survey). Other findings from the 2014–15 Social Survey, based on self-reported information, included:

  • An estimated 48% of Indigenous males aged 15 and over and 23% of Indigenous females aged 15 and over had been formally charged by the police at some time in their life.
  • 20% of Indigenous males aged 15 and over and 9.2% of Indigenous females aged 15 and over had been arrested in the past 5 years.
  • 5.3% of Indigenous males aged 15 and over and 1.1% of Indigenous females aged 15 and over had been incarcerated in the past 5 years (ABS 2016) (Table 15.3).

What does the data tell us about other factors in the criminal justice system?

Please note: This section hasn’t been updated. This will be updated for the November 2022 release.

Prisoner health and determinants

The National Prisoner Health survey, conducted in 2018, involved 789 prison entrants, including 308 Indigenous prison entrants. Of the survey participants, 12% of the Indigenous prison entrants had completed Year 12 at school, compared with 24% of the non-Indigenous entrants (excluding New South Wales data) (Table D2.11.23). Indigenous prison entrants were more likely than non-Indigenous entrants to have been unemployed in the 30 days prior to imprisonment (64% compared with 49%, respectively) (Table D2.11.24). Indigenous entrants were 3 times as likely as non-Indigenous entrants to have had a parent or carer imprisoned (32% compared with 11%, respectively) (Table D2.11.26).

Three in four (75%) prison entrants said they were current smokers. Indigenous prison entrants (80%) were more likely than non-Indigenous entrants (73%) to be current smokers. The proportion of Indigenous prison entrants who smoked was higher than in the wider Indigenous population (43% of those aged 18 and over in 2018–19). Indigenous prison entrants (46%) were almost twice as likely as non-Indigenous entrants (26%) to be rated as being at high risk of alcohol-related harm (AIHW 2019).

In 2016, the National Prison Entrants Bloodborne Virus and Risk Behaviour Survey found a higher prevalence of hepatitis B antibody among Indigenous prison entrants than non-Indigenous prison entrants (32% compared with 8%, respectively) (see measure 1.12 HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections) (Table D2.11.28).

Indigenous prison dischargees were more likely to have visited the prison health clinic (97%) than non-Indigenous dischargees (88%); however, they were less likely to report having a Medicare card available on release (56%) compared with non-Indigenous dischargees (71%) (AIHW 2019).

Deaths in custody

In Australia, deaths that occur in prison, police custody and youth detention are monitored by the National Deaths in Custody Program managed by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

In 2017–18, there were 72 deaths in prison custody. Of these, 16 (or 22%) were deaths of Indigenous people. The death rate of Indigenous prisoners was 0.14 per 100 prisoners, similar to the previous year and lower than the death rate of non-Indigenous prisoners of 0.18 per 100 prisoners.

There were 21 deaths in police custody and custody-related operations—of these, three were deaths of Indigenous people, 14 were deaths of non-Indigenous people and in four cases, Indigenous status was not recorded.

Deaths in prison custody and in police custody fluctuated over time. The death rates of Indigenous prisoners has been consistently lower than the death rates of non-Indigenous prisoners since 2003–04 (Doherty & Bricknell 2020).

What do research and evaluations tell us?

A great deal of research has been conducted on identifying risk factors and characteristics of Indigenous Australians who have had contact with the criminal justice system, highlighting the complex effects of entrenched social disadvantage and intergenerational trauma, spanning across the life course. Some research moves beyond this to identify potential ways forward to improve how the justice system treats Indigenous Australians at various points along the life course and the justice continuum. The Indigenous Justice Clearinghouse website is a useful resource that provides relevant Indigenous Justice information to assist policy makers.

Indigenous Australians that have contact with the criminal justice system are more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to:

The social and health effects of imprisonment on Indigenous Australians include (Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee 2013; Weatherburn 2014):

  • adverse employment and financial consequences (Woodward 2003)
  • lack of positive male role-models in Indigenous society (Woodward 2003)
  • prisoners taking health problems and problematic behaviours out into the community, for example hepatitis C, substance abuse, violence (Butler & Milner 2003; Woodward 2003)
  • challenges for continuity of health care following incarceration and release, for example for Hepatitis C, or for treatment involving pharmacotherapies and psychotropic medications (Krieg 2006)
  • mental and other health problems for children who have a parent in prison custody (20% of Indigenous children have a parent in custody at some stage) (Levy 2005)
  • among children whose parents offend there is an increased risk of antisocial behaviour and imprisonment, mental and physical health issues, substance use, academic difficulties, and social marginalisation or exclusion in offspring (Roettger et al. 2019).

Studies have found that structural and systemic factors can also contribute to the high rates of Indigenous offending, including laws, policies and practices that can unintentionally operate to the detriment of Indigenous Australians (Allard 2010; Blagg et al. 2005).

Imprisonment for Indigenous Australian females is increasing faster than for Indigenous Australian males and non-Indigenous males and females. In New South Wales, female incarceration rates in general climbed 33% between March 2013 and June 2019, with almost a third of them (32%) being Indigenous Australian females. This was driven by a significant increase (66%) in the proportion of women on remand, rather than a growth in crime (Phelan et al. 2019).

Female prisoners (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) are often the victims and survivors of violence, and may use violence as a strategy to respond to their victimisation. Structural factors related to bail and sentencing laws also appear to be contributing, with around 40% of all female prisoners in Australia being unsentenced (on remand) (Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Limited 2020; Heffernan et al. 2015; Wilson et al. 2017).

Other studies have shown high proportions of Indigenous Australian female prisoners are survivors of childhood sexual and other abuse (Lawrie 2003a, 2003b; Productivity Commission 2016; Wundersitz 2010) and have had post‑traumatic stress disorder (from the sudden death of a loved one, being the victim of serious domestic violence or sexual assault, or observing serious physical violence in the home as a child) (Heffernan Edward B et al. 2015).

Over the four year period June 2016–June 2020, young Indigenous Australians made up a higher proportion of those in unsentenced detention (50%–58% each quarter) than those in sentenced detention (42%–54%) (AIHW 2021b). The consequences of this are severe and include separation from family and community; lack of access to therapeutic programs; a greater likelihood of receiving a remand period following a future court appearance and receiving a sentence of imprisonment compared with young people who are released on bail (Richards & Renshaw 2013); and greater risk of repeated contact with the criminal justice system in the future (Amnesty International 2017; Jesuit Social Services and Effective Change Pty Ltd 2013).  

In New South Wales prisons in 2009, Aboriginal inmates were twice as likely to report a history of juvenile detention compared with non-Indigenous inmates, and Aboriginal men were more likely to have been in juvenile detention five or more times compared with non-Indigenous men (Indig et al. 2010). In New South Wales, a higher proportion of young Aboriginal youths in juvenile detention had been placed in out-of-home care as a child (38%) than non-Indigenous youths (17%) (Indig et al. 2011) (see measure 2.12 Child protection).

Evidence shows how the effects of prison custody persist after release. A study in Western Australia found that released prisoners have an increased risk of death compared with the general population, and this risk is greater for Aboriginal people, with female Aboriginal prisoners at a particularly high relative risk (Krieg et al. 2016; Stewart et al. 2004).

Longitudinal analysis has shown that Indigenous Australians are around 1.7 times as likely as non-Indigenous Australians to be re-imprisoned within 10 years of release (ABS 2014; Zhang & Webster 2010).

A recent study modelled the costs of Indigenous and non-Indigenous offending and found more prolific offending among Indigenous Australians resulting in much higher costs across the justice continuum compared with non-Indigenous Australians. Between the ages of 10 and 31 years, chronic Indigenous offenders are estimated to each cost the criminal justice system over $380,000, compared with just under $75,000 for non-Indigenous offenders. This is primarily due to the greater frequency and length of youth justice sanctions for the Indigenous chronic offending cohort—in particular, probation orders and detention. The greater frequency may be due to the greater churn or frequency of contact with the criminal justice system for the Indigenous chronic offenders cohort over their young adult life, compared with the non-Indigenous chronic offenders cohort. It may also partly be due to the somewhat greater rate of violent offending among the Indigenous chronic offenders cohort, which may affect their eligibility for diversionary options or particular sanction types, as well as potentially affecting the length of their sanctions (Allard et al. 2020).

In 2009, the Australian Government funded the evaluations of 20 Indigenous Australian justice programs to build the evidence-base to support the National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework (2009).

The evaluations reviewed programs designed to reduce the rates of offending for Indigenous Australians, incarceration and recidivism, particularly among Indigenous youths and perpetrators of violent crime. The evaluations were published in 2013 and identified elements of programs that were good practice and well managed:

  • Indigenous courts and conferences provide a more culturally appropriate and inclusive process and encompass the wider circumstances of offenders and victims, and may contribute to reducing recidivism.
  • Community participation in supporting offenders’ reintegration post-release and preventing reoffending has brought ownership of the justice process and improved accountability and support for offenders.
  • Effective service coordination and partnerships with allied services can assist offenders to navigate the complex justice system and gain access to the services they need.
  • Monitoring and evaluation of programs need to be embedded in the program design with clear objectives and goals (Cultural Indigenous Research Centre Australia 2013a, 2013b).

The Closing the Gap Clearinghouse identified similar promising practices of Indigenous youth justice programs such as the importance of having adequately resourced, culturally appropriate and competent services; effective collaboration; addressing multiple and complex needs of offenders; and family engagement and parental training. However, there is a lack of evidence on whether prevention and early intervention programs are working to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous young people in the criminal justice system (Davis & Higgins 2014). Areas that require further in-depth research and evaluation include how Indigenous participants fare in mainstream justice programs; how sustainable are the outcomes; whether collaborative case management in youth crime prevention and reduction programs is effective for Indigenous young people; and how effective are the structured, cognitive behavioural programs based on ‘Western’ psychological theories (Davis & Higgins 2014).

Marchetti (2017) argued that limited quantitative measurement of outcomes such as failure to reduce reoffending does not necessarily mean Indigenous-focused justice programs have failed, but rather suggest that important aspects of their contribution, such as the cultural complexities that drive and influence these programs, are not being measured (Marchetti 2017).

A recent follow-up quantitative evaluation, after an initial evaluation in 2008, found that circle sentencing is associated with lower levels of incarceration and recidivism. However, the evaluation was unable to address the possibility that selection bias was driving the estimates, and thus they should be interpreted with caution. (Circle sentencing is an alternative method of sentencing Indigenous offenders that involves the offender’s community, Elders, and sometimes victims in the sentencing process.)

The Tiwi Islands Youth Development and Diversion Unit in the Northern Territory provides a 12‑week diversion program engaging Tiwi youth (typically first‑time youth offenders) in prevention activities that aim to benefit the offender, the victim and the community (Davis & Higgins 2014; Stewart et al. 2014).

  • An independent evaluation of the program found it was effective in reducing adverse contact between Tiwi youth and the criminal justice system (Stewart J et al. 2014). Individual re‑offence data from the Northern Territory Police for program participants showed that 20% of participants (13 of 65 young people) had contact with the police for alleged offences in the year following commencement with the program—below what would be expected for this population without the intervention.
  • Qualitative data found the program was useful in reconnecting young people to cultural norms, was culturally ‘competent’ and directly addressed the factors that contribute to offending behaviour, such as substance misuse, boredom and disengagement from work or education.

The Australian Government has funded the Time to Work Employment Service (TWES) in response to the 2016 Council of Australian Government’s Prison to Work Report. TWES is a voluntary in-prison program for eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners. It aims to improve and support the transition of prisoners to post-release employment service providers to achieve better engagement with Indigenous prisoners from employment services and smoother pathways into employment support following release. An evaluation in 2021 found TWES complements state-based in-prison training, employment and reintegration programs by supporting the most disadvantaged and high risk cohorts who cannot access other training and employment programs due to a range of challenges experienced including literacy. Further, the evaluation found that as a voluntary program, not all prisoners choose to participate and the rate of service completion was low (NIAA 2021).

Implications

The findings and research in this Measure show a high level of intergenerational disadvantage associated with contact with the criminal justice system. Supporting children and their families through wrap-around services and programs, designed and led by Indigenous Australians, can reduce the intergenerational effects of incarceration (Roettger et al. 2019). Many Indigenous Australians do not offend despite the presence of the common risk factors for offending. Further research into resilience and protective factors will aid approaches to prevention (Wundersitz 2010).

Primary responsibility for criminal justice issues sits with state and territory governments. The states and territories, as well as non-government organisations, deliver a range of programs to reduce levels of Indigenous incarceration and reoffending, including diversionary programs (for example cautions and conferencing), circle sentencing and Indigenous courts, and prisoner through-care arrangements (AHRC 2013). The Australian Government also funds a number of activities to complement efforts by states and territories to improve justice and community safety outcomes for Indigenous Australians, such as Custody Notification Services and Indigenous-specific through-care programs.

The National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement) was developed in partnership between all Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. Each party to the National Agreement has developed their own Implementation Plan and will report annually on their actions to achieve the outcomes of the agreement. Plans have been developed and will be delivered in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partners.

Under Priority Reform One of the National Agreement (formal partnerships and shared-decision-making), the Australian Government has taken a leadership role to bring all states and territories, the Coalition of the Peaks, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander independent representatives together, through the Justice Policy Partnership (JPP). The JPP will identify opportunities to work more effectively across governments to reduce the rates of Indigenous incarceration and youth detention, recognising states and territories largely have responsibility for the criminal justice system.

The JPP is focussed on the collective effort required to address the drivers of youth detention and adult incarceration. Building a strong foundation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to work together with governments through formal partnerships and shared decision-making is an important and respectful first step towards achieving Targets 10 and 11 of the National Agreement.

Action on other targets in the National Agreement will also help reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system. These include actions to ensure families are safe, young people are meaningfully engaged in education and thrive in their early years, adults are employed, all people have good health and wellbeing, and that connections to cultures, languages, lands and waters are strong.

Crime prevention strategies have been recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission. Justice Reinvestment initiatives in Australia have taken the form of programs designed to empower Indigenous Australians to identify the drivers of crime and develop tailored, place-based solutions. These solutions are chosen for their potential to prevent crime (for example, night patrols or alcohol restrictions) and reduce recidivism (for example by rehabilitating prisoners returning to the community) (Australian Law Reform Commission 2017; Desmond & Davidson 2019).

The Australian Government as well as most if not all of the states and territories, have taken steps to explore the potential of Justice Reinvestment strategies (Willis & Kapira 2018). Justice Reinvestment is a ‘comprehensive strategy’ (DeMichele & Payne 2009) that aims to reduce prison numbers by determining more effective means of managing offenders and addressing reasons for their offending (Garland 2007) originating from the United States in the early 2000s (Tucker & Cadora 2003). In many cases, these strategies have focused on the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system, as well as changes to the youth justice system (Schwartz 2010). In those jurisdictions that have shown greater progress in Justice Reinvestment implementation, this has been achieved through the collaborative efforts of government, service providers, community representatives and academics.

Indigenous Australians are more likely to return to prison than non-Indigenous Australians, as they are more likely to experience risk factors for re-offending. Culturally appropriate wrap-around support models, such as Indigenous-specific through-care models, are designed to help address risk factors for reoffending through offering tailored support to Indigenous Australians while incarcerated and for an extended period following release from prison (Australian Law Reform Commission 2017; Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee 2013). Availability and flexibility of community-based sentencing options has been recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission to prevent Indigenous Australians returning to the justice system (Commission 2018).

Efforts to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system include:

  • maternal health, parenting skills and family-based programs
  • holistic intensive programs for Indigenous young people in out of home care
  • actions targeting those at high risk of offending
  • therapeutic and holistic support to address criminogenic needs
  • programs targeting aggression and problem sexual behaviour
  • prison-based rehabilitative programs, including prison services for people with a cognitive disability
  • prisoner through-care programs, including employment-focused re-entry programs
  • access to appropriate legal services (Australian Law Reform Commission 2017)
  • early intervention, prevention, justice reinvestment and diversion initiatives (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2017).

In April 2016, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to develop methods to address barriers to employment on release and to support Indigenous Australians as they transition from incarceration to employment (COAG 2016).

A strong attachment to culture is associated with better outcomes on a range of indicators, including the probability of being arrested or reoffending (Dockery 2010; Lafferty et al. 2016; Shepherd et al. 2018). Culturally appropriate law, legal and court services (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Koori courts, circle sentencing, and restorative justice) that meet complex legal, cultural and language needs can help Indigenous Australians to navigate the justice system and mitigate systemic factors that disadvantage Indigenous Australians (Australian Law Reform Commission 2017; Urbis 2019).

In Australia, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10. This is the age below which a child is deemed incapable of having committed a criminal offence. At the Meeting of Attorneys-General on
12 November 2021, Attorneys-General from each state supported the development of a proposal to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12. The Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have made individual commitments to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility and are working on their own reforms. Raising the age of criminal responsibility is a matter for state and territory jurisdictions.

Two main principles upon which the Australian youth justice system is based, and are incorporated in state and territory legislation, are that young people should be detained only as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period (Chrzanowski & Wallis 2011).

Diverting young people from further involvement in the justice system is crucial. Forms of diversion include:

  • police warnings
  • referral to services such as drug and alcohol treatment
  • bail supervision for those at risk of remand
  • youth justice conferencing.

Alternatives to detention include:

  • transfer to specialist courts or programs
  • supervised or unsupervised community orders (AIHW 2021b).

The JPP provides a forum to discuss matters such as the minimum age of criminal responsibility and support for young people as an alternative to youth detention. The JPP work plan includes improving justice outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, with a focus on children under 14 years old.

Research needs to consider the effectiveness of different forms of diversion and alternatives to detention for addressing the over-representation of Indigenous youth in the justice system, particularly those in remand and unsentenced detention.

Following the National Agreement, in 2022, the Indigenous Justice Research Program was established to fund academic research to identify and analyse: 

  • the nature and drivers of the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal justice and related systems; 
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ contact with and experience in the criminal justice and related systems; 
  • policies, programs or other activities that will contribute to a reduction in the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal justice and related systems; and/or
  • Indigenous approaches to crime and criminal justice.

Another critical issue in supporting Indigenous Australians who have contact with the justice system is ensuring that universal services are accessible and able to meet their need. For example, access to health services is needed both prior to imprisonment and post-release (Lloyd et al. 2013). Accessing health care post-imprisonment may require reapplying for a Medicare number, which creates an additional barrier to addressing health issues while managing competing priorities of re-establishing housing, employment and relationships with family and community. Some Aboriginal health organisations have developed their own health programs for prisoners and their families (Nettleton et al. 2007; Tongs et al. 2007).

A contributing factor to the over-representation of prisoners—including Indigenous prisoners—with mental health and substance use problems, is the lack of institutional psychiatric care positions available in the community (Rosen 2006).

In 2016, Delaney-Thiele and others examined the effects of incarceration and the return of former inmates to their communities on family members and how primary health care services might provide better support to Indigenous families and communities. They highlighted the need to identify which organisations are the key duty bearers for former inmates and family members and how best to support them to ensure they can access their rights to health and wellbeing. The study found that the key to effective post-release support is a linked and collaborative service network model so that when families and former inmates seek support, primary health care providers are ready to activate the network as well as provide targeted health interventions as needed (Delaney-Thiele et al. 2016).

A further area in which improvements could allow the needs of Indigenous Australian prisoners to be identified and addressed is data collection. The Australian Government is also working with states and territories to develop nationally comparable Indigenous offending and victimisation data sets that will assist with identifying areas of greatest need and monitoring trends. More evidence is required about what prevention strategies and interventions are effective in reducing victimisation, offending and reoffending, and contact with the criminal justice system. There are also a number of gaps in the evidence regarding youth justice supervision, children intersecting between the child protection and youth justice systems, tracking movement into adult detention, and the health of those under youth justice supervision.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is working with corrective services agencies to explore ways to improve prisoner flow data to build a more accurate picture of incarceration (ABS 2019). National reporting of prison separations will help inform through‑care services for those released from prison (Avery & Kinner 2015).

The policy context is at Policies and strategies.

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