Menu lock


Dec 15, 2011

Aboriginal crime and punishment: incarceration rates rise under neoliberalism

The number of indigenous prisoners has increased for the 11th year in a row, despite the prisoner population falling for the first time in a decade. Inga Ting reports a history of failed government policy.

The number of indigenous adults held in the nation’s jails has increased for the 11th year in a row, despite the nation’s prisoner population falling for the first time in a decade.

According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, the indigenous prisoner population increased by 1% in the year to June 2011 while the total prisoner population dropped by 2%. The gap between indigenous and non-indigenous imprisonment rates grew by 0.1%, with indigenous Australians now 14.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous Australians. Today, about one in four prisoners are indigenous even though indigenous Australians make up just 2.5% of the general population.

While the reduction in the national prisoner population makes a welcome change, the fact remains that it has expanded by 30% over the past decade despite falling crime rates across the nation. At first glance, this doesn’t make sense: crime rates have decreased dramatically in the past decade (see the complete data) while incarceration rates — especially indigenous incarceration rates — have continued to climb.

The problem lies in the common assumption that punishment is a direct outcome to criminal behaviour, says Chris Cunneen, Professor of Justice and Social Inclusion at James Cook University and a criminologist with more than 20 years’ experience in indigenous criminal justice. “Sentencing and imprisonment is not related to crime. It’s a function of government policy,” he told Crikey. “The fact that we’re locking up more people is … really about changes to law and practice.”

Australia is a part of a worldwide trend towards more punitive law and order regimes, Cunneen says. In recent decades Australia has witnessed numerous changes to the criminal justice system, which have helped to push more people into prison than at any other time in history. Among them, the introduction of tougher sentencing laws and practices, limits to bail eligibility and constraints on judicial discretion, while non-custodial sentencing options have been curtailed, rehabilitative programs cut and post-release services reduced.

A 2009 NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research study draws the same conclusions. It found that the rate of indigenous incarceration in NSW (which holds more than one third of the national prisoner population) rose 48% between 2001 and 2008 while the rate of indigenous court appearances and the rate of indigenous convictions both fell in the same period. It concluded that none of the rise was the result of any change in patterns of indigenous offending. Rather, the entire increase could be explained by the increased use of imprisonment (rather than non-custodial options), longer prison sentences, increased rates of bail refusal and longer periods on remand. In other words, more people being jailed and people spending longer in jail.

But there is a bigger picture here that is more just the sum of each of these developments.

“All of these changes in sentencing law or judicial discretion or bail eligibility — things that have had some impact in increasing prison numbers — need to be contextualised within the broader shift of what’s referred to as ‘governing through crime’,” Cunneen said.

Societies governed through crime are driven by a “risk agenda” that concentrates on the risk of crime occurring, not just actual crime. In this society of increased surveillance and heightened fear, “the problem of crime” becomes a central focus. Public “debate” resembles a kind of echo chamber as politicians on all sides converge on the same goal: how best to “get tough” on crime. Punishment, which is increasingly targeted at those at the margins, becomes the most politically expedient response: it allows politicians to look like they’re doing something without the need to consider the longer-term repercussions.

This shift toward the use of crime and punishment as tools of social policy is closely tied to the ascendancy of neoliberalism, according to Cunneen: “The neoliberal approach is one that focuses on retribution and deterrence. It focuses on individual responsibility and accountability, and it downplays any reference to social welfare and social democracy. That focus on individual responsibility and accountability translates very easily to the greater use of imprisonment for longer periods of time.”

The most strongly neoliberal societies — like Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States — have sustained some of the highest rises in imprisonment rates since the late 1980s, he says. Meanwhile social democracies with co-ordinated economies — like the Scandinavian countries, for example — have maintained low imprisonment rates through a more welfare-aligned, rehabilitative approach.

“It’s that contradiction about strongly market-driven economies being more likely to have greater levels of unemployment and concentrated disadvantage, and less levels of social welfare support … [It] means they generate a population that’s likely to have high levels of contact with criminal justice agencies,” Cunneen said. “So what do you do … with so-called ‘problem’ populations if you’re ideologically not prepared to take a social democratic, social welfare response?”

The apparent answer and its consequences do not paint a pretty picture. Among them, a grossly inflated inmate population, expanding custodial budgets, deteriorating prison conditions, increasing deaths in custody and spiralling rates of recidivism (55% of prisoners have been previously incarcerated, while 58% of indigenous and 35% of non-indigenous offenders are re-imprisoned within 10 years).

The problems are unlikely to vanish any time soon, since the ballooning prison population has led to more and larger prisons, which in turn has meant fewer custodial and health staff per inmate; greater reliance on technology and electronic modes of surveillance; less human contact; and reduced access to programs aimed at improving inmates’ skills, education and ability to reintegrate — not to mention the repercussions of incarceration for intergenerational dysfunction and cycles of offending.

Ironically, this trend towards mass imprisonment began about 20 years ago, about the same time government pledged to achieve the exact opposite: to drastically reduce levels of incarceration in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. “The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reported at a time when the ground had already moved towards more punitive approaches to law and order, and I think that’s a major reason why it’s never had any impact on imprisonment rates,” Cunneen said.

What is clear is that the rise of control through crime has had a profoundly racial dimension in Australia, and the indigenous population has borne the brunt of this, he adds. Although incarceration rates for all Australians have risen over the past decade, the indigenous rate has outstripped the non-indigenous rate by a factor of 11, soaring more than 47% between 2001 and 2011, while the non-indigenous rate grew 4% in the same period.Notably, the two jurisdictions with the highest imprisonment rates — the Northern Territory and Western Australia — also have the largest proportion of indigenous residents. In the NT, where one in three people (32%) are indigenous, the imprisonment rate has risen 46% in the past decade, from 523 prisoners per 100,000 adults (one in 191) in 2001 to 762 prisoners per 100,000 (one in 131) in 2011. In WA, where indigenous people make up 3.8% of residents, indigenous residents are 23 times more likely to be locked up than non-indigenous residents, with one in 26 indigenous adults now behind bars.

Racialised punishment is not unique to Australia but its ferocity surpasses some of the most notorious international examples. In South Africa in 1993, just before the collapse of apartheid, the rate of incarceration for black men was 851 per 100,000 (or one in 118). In Australia today, the imprisonment rate for indigenous men is five times as high, at 4228 per 100,000 (one in 24).

In the US — the world’s leading jailer, where more than one in 100 American adults are imprisoned —  African Americans make up less than 13% of the population, but 38% of the prisoner population (an over-representation factor of three). In Australia, indigenous people make up just 2.5% of the population, but 26% of the prison population (an over-representation factor of 10.4). In the NT, the indigenous population makes up 82% of the prison population; in WA, 38%.

In societies governed through crime, race is a marker of “risk”, a label identifying certain groups as dangerous and therefore deserving of different forms of control and punishment.

“Mass incarceration has been used to frame African-American incarceration in the US … So if they have mass incarceration, what do we have? We have hyper-mass incarceration of indigenous people,” said Charandev Singh, a paralegal and campaigner against racialised punishment and deaths in custody, who has worked with indigenous and non-indigenous families in coronial inquests for about 18 years. “We have the most incarcerated indigenous people in the world.

“This is about the intensity of racialised punishment in Australia and the denial of the racialised nature of that punishment … Every regime of law and order, from mandatory sentencing to the expansion of prisons to expansion of police powers and then the expansion of [NT] intervention laws, is really a form of racialised politics — predatory racialised politics — that has a long and continuing history in this country.”


Incomprehensibly, under current Closing the Gap policy arrangements, the “strategic area of action” most relevant to indigenous incarceration and justice — called the Safe Communities “building block” — is the only one out of seven that is not supported by specific targets or a National Partnership Agreement, and therefore has no funding.

“Federal government policy is about closing the gap in terms of health and mortality, but issues around the criminal legal system and its devastating impact on indigenous people’s lives, health, education and employment don’t form part of that policy equation. They must,” Singh said. “There’s nothing more devastating than being a victim of family violence and then going to prison and being a victim of state violence, and then being spat out again.”

Despite repeated promises to reduce indigenous over-representation in prisons — the latest federal commitment made last month — the solution actually offered by government is just more of the problem itself, Singh says.

“Predatory race politics positions more incarceration as a response to the harm of mass incarceration, and greater levels of intervention and control as a response to the harms of dispossession and dislocation … so naturally, things are going to get worse,” he said.

Tomorrow: “governing through crime” and how policies actually target indigenous people

Related stories:

We recommend

From around the web

Powered by Taboola


Leave a comment

44 thoughts on “Aboriginal crime and punishment: incarceration rates rise under neoliberalism

  1. Wombat

    Whilst I whole-heartedly agree with the arguments and conclusions presented here, there is one paragraph which is contains a factual error.

    The National Partnership Agreements are not the “building blocks” at all. The Safe Communities building block is funded – in the instance of Fitzroy Crossing it comes under the NPA for Remote Service Delivery. See here:

    I would suggest that referencing one person’s view from an 18-month old Rep’s Committee Transcript is misleading, particularly when that person works for an organisation which was seeking funding on this issue.

  2. Word

    It should be noted that the reason that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody did not have an effect on imprisonment rates was not simply because of its timing, it is largely due to the fact that its recommendations remain unimplemented.

  3. McFly Marty

    “In South Africa in 1993, just before the collapse of apartheid, the rate of incarceration for black men was 851 per 100,000 (or one in 118). In Australia today, the imprisonment rate for indigenous men is five times as high, at 4228 per 100,000 (one in 24).”


  4. Captain Planet

    Whilst mandatory sentencing, the NT intervention and expansion of police powers all qualify as racialisation of punishment, it does not follow that the over representation of indigenous people in prisons is entirely and solely caused by “racialisation of punishment”.

    Many police, court and corrections personnel here in the North of Australia are heartily sick of arresting, trying, convicting and jailing indigenous people with monotonous regularity.

    The fact is that you have to be tried and found guilty of a crime prior to being incarcerated. It is true that there is a racist bias within the laws and the manner in which they are applied in this country, and there is no doubt that this is a contributing factor to high indigenous incarceration rates. Politically incorrect as though it may be, however, I would suggest that the over representation of indigenous people in Australian jails is much more strongly attributable to the rate of criminality amongst the indigenous populace, than to racist police, judges and laws.

    This is another issue, an intractable and controversial issue with devastating consequences for indigenous people and communities. Any well informed thinking person can easily see the link between indigenous disadvantage, historical dispossession, and criminality. I don’t have the answer for it, and successive state and federal governments have demonstrated their inability to effectively address this issue, too.

    In observing the astonishingly disproportionate rates of indigenous incarceration in Australia, whilst maintaining a compassionate approach with an emphasis on harm minimisation and societal welfare, let us not ignore the elephant in the room: This problem will be best addressed by reducing the incidence of criminal activity amongst indigenous communities.

  5. davidk

    We’ve known about this stuff for years and yet we still raise mandatory prison sentences for so called people smugglers and in so doing lock up indonesian juveniles. How can our politicians justify a pay rise when they so openly fail the Australian people like this?

  6. Liz45

    @WORD – Exactly what I was thinking when I saw this article and read it. It’s so depressing isn’t it? Not one of the recommendations has been implemented – not one! The States with the highest aboriginal incarceration numbers are those where historically, racism has been the worst – such as Qld, NT and WA? But please correct me if I’m wrong on this.

    @CAPTAIN PLANET – What you assert has nothing to do with political correctness – it’s just pure racism. If you maintain that the incidence of criminality is higher in aboriginal populations, you should provide stats to endorse that – you have not! The fact is, that what happens to aboriginal people in this country also happens to blacks in the US, or Canada or NZ – it’s brought about by the idea, the reality in fact, that ‘you get the justice you can afford to pay for’ in many cases. Aboriginal people get a custodial sentence for crimes that non-indigenous people get a warning, or community service etc. Racism knows no bounds. It was the police, judges, courts etc after white settlement who put aboriginal people in shackles, shot them or hung them – with impunity! Go and read some history! Go and talk to some aboriginal people. Find out how the women had to live decades ago, and how many are still discriminated/abused etc on a daily basis. How would you cope if your kids came home every day, angry and fuming due to racism at school or on the way home etc? It happens to too many kids – how do we then expect them to grow up straight, tall and proud – and functioning OK?

    @DAVIDK – The way we’ve treated those juveniles locked away, sometimes for up to a year and more is shameful. I feel ashamed – and damned angry. The attitude of the Indonesian police and judiciary was quite wonderful – I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised and moved by their attitudes and treatment of that young boy – who probably was of a larger frame than many starving Indonesian kids, who only wanted a small wage for ‘working on a boat’? As a kitchen hand or???

    Non-indigenous people (usually males) sexually assault women and kids. How many lose their homes? When has the army driven down the suburbs in the North Shore? When has the police cars tormented non-aboriginal kids in the street?

    How many whites have been jailed for sexually abusing young aboriginal girls? How many in the NT have been even charged with sexual abuse of children – black or white? I suggest a handful would be being generous. There’s sexual abuse and neglect in non-aboriginal homes, but we haven’t sent the army in or brought in quarantining of income/s? How many non-aboriginal men who sexually abuse women and kids lose their homes? their land?

  7. TormentedbytheDs

    I wonder if some of the “tough on crime” pressure groups are supported/created by the
    private prison corporations. I also wonder about how much the are donating to the major parties.

  8. Buddy

    To add to the discussion. I work in an area that has direct contact with convicted persons and those on charges. Purely from observations through my workplace, which i readily accept is observational and limited to my field of employment and workplace. The majority of indigenous persons we would see have offences in the lower range and generally related to social issues. Such as substance, illicit or otherwise, family violence, drive whilst disqualified, assaults etc. When seen in context with the persons history it is all too apparent what may have led to difficulties they now find themselves in. Indigenous men also have much higher rates of poor literacy and education which really limits employment opportunities. All of these social factors coupled with a wide range of disadvantage creates from what i can observe a cycle of offending exacerbated when they are placed on community based orders which are more often than not breached for the above reasons. There is also a subset within this population and again, from observation in the 18-25 age group who have no regard for community based orders as they think they are bullet proof and the court wont jail them……….. i don’t necessarily feel its an indigenous mindset…. experience tells me its more about some young men… irrespective of race. The older indigenous men however do get trapped in the cycle, they lose hope and then they are lost to the system, and another generation of indigenous persons become part of this new stolen generation. I don’t have answers, but i think we have to rethink crime and punishment more broadly. Put in place more community supports rather than take them away, and direct monies into breaking the cycles that are all too evident. Prison is not rehabilitative by and large and the wider community must be provided with leadership on this issues; instead we have the removal of judicial discretion and options as in Victoria with the new sentencing changes and in effect rolling back Therapeutic Jurisprudence.

  9. Liz45

    @TORMENTEDBYTHEDS – I read an article once about the prison system in the US and the private company/companies that run them. This article gave the stats re the manner in which the prison system ‘grew’ after only a few years. One of the major companies also runs prisons in Britain and is operating some in Australia. Further, the present and past companies that run our detention centres (for asylum seekers) are also the same or part of the US companies. So in short – it’s in their best interests for more people to be thrown in the slammer. Their prime aim is to make profits which they do – to obscene levels. The stats are probably readily available(I just don’t have the time at this minute!)

    The majority of people in any State in the US on death row are black. Does that mean that they’re the only people who commit murders etc? Of course not! But other people before me have stated that it’s just another way to get rid of black people – now that the KKK have almost been outlawed! It’s not surprising then, that the States with the most entrenched views re the death penalty are the same States where racism and the mass murder of black people were rife for decades/centuries.

    Now, we don’t have the death penalty here any more, thank goodness, but we still destroy the lives of black people by keeping them impoverished, uneducated, not housed, dying of some diseases, that if one occurred in my community we’d take to the streets en masse – such as Rheumatic Fever brought about by infections of the ears, throat etc, which can then leave the person(usually children) with weak hearts for the rest of their lives!

    These diseases were rife in Sydney/Melbourne in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, but when sanitation(sewerage/running water etc)housing and general living standards improved Rheumatic Fever disappeared among the many communities. It is to our eternal shame that it’s still occurring in indigenous areas. It should be classified as a crime against humanity – as should the general state of aboriginal health!

    I find it repugnant, that politicians salaries could be increased by up to 60%, but when discussion is around aboriginal health, we’re all told of the number of years it will take to even make some headway – due to the high cost!

    If you’re an aboriginal person with a suspected heart condition in the Kimberly for instance, you may have to wait for the 6 monthly visit by the Cardiologist, or go to a major hospital, far away from your family. It just shocks and disgusts me! It’s not the medical personnel’s fault – it’s a matter of money and how little is allocated! Shameful! No wonder aboriginal people get angry!

  10. Arthur Bell

    Prisons, An Inconvenient Truth?
    Even some of the most vicious and low-life crims in jail are being encouraged to feel
    the “Real Victims” There is now a Massive “Prison Welfare Industry” catering to this.
    It used to be, Do the Crime Do the Time With No Sympathy. And this was Understood and Accepted by the inmates. Many of them caused a lot of Pain and Suffering to a lot of good people. My experience and observation over years was that 90% of the prison population deserved to be there. I did the Prison Programme when employed as a Counsellor with
    QAIAS and assisted with parole applications. I also spent a few Early Years in Prisons.
    As a lot of us did when *Cherbourg was deregulated in the sixties.
    Not because we were Crims or had Criminal Intentions. We simply had some issues adjusting to a different way of life when we moved to Brisbane. And, We All Moved On.
    The inmates of today are certainly a Different Kettle of Fish.
    Many Hardened Criminals with 20 or more convictions for car theft, burglary or break and enter and destruction of property, And with no respect for anything or anyone.
    Including the Elderly and other Aboriginals. Quite a few for vicious assaults.
    On women and even children. Most spruik Aboriginal Rights
    but are Ignorant on the Rights of Other People in the Community
    whom need to be protected from them. This being why they are in jail.
    Many are “Repeat Offenders”. Definitely not “Innocent Victims” and “Traffic fine Defaulters” As the “Aboriginal Victim Industry” ( AVI ) including the “Out of Touch” and “Misguided Moral Postures” ANTaR and Others, would have us believe. ( 6/6/2009 alb.)

    extract from

Leave a comment