The Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework explicitly recognises that the contemporary social and economic circumstances of Aboriginal people are inextricably linked to ongoing and previous generations’ experiences of European colonisation. This recognition equally applies to Aboriginal over-representation in criminal justice.
The exercise of power and control by European settlers resulted in dispossession of land, disruption of culture and kinship systems, removal of children, racism, social exclusion, institutionalisation and entrenched poverty for Aboriginal people. The consequences of colonisation are far-reaching and intergenerational, continuing to play out in Aboriginal peoples’ interactions with the criminal justice system[i]. Increasing Aboriginal over-representation in Victoria’s criminal justice institutions has the potential, in the absence of more appropriate responses, to further perpetuate social and economic exclusion, and compound losses of culture, family and purpose, for a growing number of Aboriginal people.
“Our life pattern was created by the government policies and are forever with me, as though an invisible anchor around my neck.”[ii]
Confidential submission to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children
(Bringing them Home, 1997)
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) found that “the high rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody was directly related to the underlying factors of poor health and housing, low employment and education levels, dysfunctional families and communities, dispossession and past government policies… [it] concluded that the most significant contributing factor bringing Aboriginal people into conflict with the criminal justice system was their disadvantaged and unequal position in the wider society”[iii].
The following statistics demonstrate that these social and economic factors are as relevant today as they were in 1991 when the RCIADIC delivered its findings. It is critical that work continue with the Aboriginal community to tackle the causes of disadvantage if AJA4 is to be achieved.
Figure 8. Social and economic factors that affect Aboriginal Victorians
Disengaging from school and lack of educational attainment increase the risk of an individual committing an offence and becoming involved in the justice system.
Over half of all young people in custody had been previously suspended or expelled from school[iv]. While there remain gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal education outcomes, more Aboriginal students are staying in school longer.
Aboriginal people with cognitive impairments are more likely to come into contact with police earlier and more frequently that their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
Eleven per cent of Aboriginal young people in custody were registered with Disability Services[v].
Unemployment increases the risk of justice system involvement.
Half of all first time offenders were unemployed at time of arrest. Aboriginal unemployment is 14 per cent, more than double the non-Aboriginal rate and even higher among the Aboriginal youth population[vi].
Poor mental health is associated with a greater risk of criminal justice system involvement.
Forty per cent of all young people in youth justice custody presented with mental health issues[vii]. Seventy-two per cent of Aboriginal men and 92 per cent of Aboriginal in prison women had received a lifetime diagnosis of mental illness[viii].
High levels of substance use are reported among Aboriginal offenders.
Aboriginal offenders are more likely to report being under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs at the time of offence and more likely to attribute their offending to substance use than non-Aboriginal offenders[ix]. Sixty-five per cent of young people detained on sentence and remand had a history of alcohol and licit and illicit drug use, and 82 per cent reported that the use of either drugs or alcohol were a factor that contributed to their offending behaviour[x].
Endemic and entrenched forms of racism can result in Aboriginal people being excluded from full participation in Victorian society.
Institutional racism and systemic discrimination perpetuates the marginalisation of Aboriginal people. Forty-six per cent of Aboriginal people experienced racial discrimination in the six months prior to the Reconciliation Australia Barometer survey [xi].Thirty-seven per cent of Aboriginal Victorians felt they had been treated unfairly in the past twelve months because they were Aboriginal[xii].
Children who have been involved in the Child Protection and/or out-of-home care systems are at greater risk of future justice system involvement.
In June 2017 there were 2,091 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in Victoria – the highest number in the past decade. Rates of out-of-home care are over 15 times higher for Aboriginal children than non-Aboriginal children[xiii].
Family violence and sexual abuse
Being a witness or victim of family violence early in life increases the risk of future justice system involvement as an offender.
An estimated 87 per cent of all Aboriginal women in custody have been a victim of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, with most having suffered abuse in multiple forms[xiv]. Seventy-one per cent of young people in custody were victims of abuse, trauma or neglect[xv].
Substandard and inadequate housing can lead to poor health, which is an underlying cause of incarceration. Homelessness is also a serious issue.
Thirteen per cent of young people were homeless with no fixed address or living in insecure housing before being taken into custody[xvi].Victoria has one of the highest proportions (37 per cent) of Aboriginal people who have experienced homelessness, with almost nine per cent of all clients accessing specialist homelessness services in Victoria being Aboriginal[xvii].
Involvement in the justice system
Policy and legislative changes in Victoria designed to enhance community safety have seen a growth in the number of Victorians now under justice supervision – on Community Correction Orders, on remand and serving prison sentences. At the same time, there has been an increase in Aboriginal people’s involvement in the justice system in Victoria. This has occurred at a greater rate than in the non-Aboriginal population. This is unsurprising given higher rates of socio-economic disadvantage in the Aboriginal community.
Figure 9. Number of Aboriginal people under adult justice supervision 2006-2017 in Victoria vs legislative reform
Source: ABS 4512.0 Corrective Services, Australia
[i] Cunneen C, Tauri J, 2016, Indigenous Criminology, Bristol Policy Press, United Kingdom.
[ii] Australian Human Rights Commission, 1997, Confidential Submission 338, Bringing them Home: Report on the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. 338, p.4.
[iii] Department of Justice and Regulation, 2005, Victorian Implementation Review of the Recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, vol 1, Victoria State Government, p.79.
[iv] Department of Justice and Regulation, 2017, Youth Parole Board Annual Report 2016-17, Victoria State Government.
[v] ibid, Data is for all young offenders. Aboriginal rates may be higher.
[vi] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017, 2024.0 Census of Population and Housing: Australia Revealed 2016, Retrieved 27 April 2018 <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/2024.0 (External link)>.
[vii] Department of Justice and Regulation, 2017, Youth Parole Board Annual Report 2016-17, Victoria State Government. Data is for all young offenders. Aboriginal rates may be higher.
[viii] Ogloff JRP, Patterson J, Cutajar M, Adams K, Thomas S, Halacas C, 2013, Koori Prisoner Mental health and Cognitive Function Study – Final Report, Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science, Monash University, prepared for Department of Justice and Regulation, Victoria State Government.
[ix] Putt J, Payne J & Milner L. 2005, Indigenous male offending and substance abuse. Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice No. 293. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
[x] Department of Justice and Regulation, 2017, Youth Parole Board Annual Report 2016-17, Victoria State Government. Data is for all young offenders. Aboriginal rates may be higher.
[xi] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016, 4714.0 – National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014-15, Retrieved 27 April 2018 <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4714.0 (External link)>.
[xii] Department of Premier and Cabinet, 2017, Victorian Government Aboriginal Affairs Report, Victoria State Government.
[xiii] Australian Government Productivity Commission, 2018, Report on Government Services, Retrieved 27 April 2018 <https://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services (External link)>.
[xiv] Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, 2013 Unfinished business: Koori women and the justice system, Victoria State Government.
[xv] Department of Justice and Regulation, 2017, Youth Parole Board Annual Report 2016-17, Victoria State Government. Data is for all young offenders. Aboriginal rates may be higher.
[xvi] Department of Justice and Regulation, 2017, Youth Parole Board Annual Report 2016-17, Victoria State Government. Data is for all young offenders. Aboriginal rates may be higher.
[xvii] Department of Premier and Cabinet, 2017, Victorian Government Aboriginal Affairs Report, Victoria State Government.