This paper provides an overview of national statistics pertaining to the high level of incarceration of Indigenous Australians and the socioeconomic background to that phenomenon. The paper goes on to consider how to address this issues by applying the traditional criminal justice principles of equal justice, personal responsibility, and fair punishment.
National averages are useful for identifying broad trends. However, these trends are not consistent across jurisdictions and communities and the below should be read with that in mind.
The incarceration of Indigenous Australians
Government data shows that when compared to the non-Indigenous, Indigenous Australians are:
• Imprisoned at more than 12 times the rate
• More likely to serve short sentences of imprisonment
• More likely to be imprisoned or charged with assault or another violent offence
• When imprisoned, more likely to have been imprisoned previously
These statistics emerge from within a context of socioeconomic disadvantage, with Indigenous Australians being:
• Less likely to finish school
• Subject to greater instability, abuse, and violence at home
• More likely to exhibit risky drinking habits
• More likely to be unemployed and to have a low income
Additionally, the demographics of the Indigenous population exacerbate some of these trends, with the Indigenous population being:
• Younger on average than the rest of the Australian population
• Much more likely to live in remote and very remote areas, often because of cultural and spiritual commitments and often with first languages other than English.
All of these factors make alternatives to incarceration, like home detention, work orders, and rehabilitation orders more difficult for government to deliver to Indigenous Australians than to the non-Indigenous.