New analysis from the Australian Institute of Criminology has confirmed that homicide in Australia has fallen significantly since the 1990s, including domestic homicide. The report, by Willow Bryant and Samantha Bricknell, looks at national data from 1989-90 to 2013-14.
During that period, the number of homicides has fallen from over 300 a year — the level homicide was at for much of the 1990s — to around 240-250 at the moment. Adjusted for population, that means a significant fall, from around 1.8 murders per 100,000 population each year to 1.0 currently. If Australians were murdered at the same rate as in 1990, around 430 people would be killed each year.
Domestic homicide was the most prevalent type of homicide in the period 2012-14 (the most recent data, which the report also examines), at 41%; another 27% was categorised as “acquaintance homicide”; 63% of domestic homicides were intimate partner murders; another 15% were murders of children. The overall number of domestic homicides has fallen 13% since 1989; intimate partner killings have fallen 24%. And while assigning a motive is often problematic and may be inconsistent across jurisdictions, the most prevalent reason across all murders, not just domestic homicides, is domestic arguments (16%), other kinds of arguments (16% jointly), money and drugs (both 6%), and various kinds of controlling behaviours — jealousy (5%), revenge (4%) and termination of a relationship (4%).
Despite the prevalence of domestic homicide, men dominate homicide victims as well as offenders: 64% of all homicide victims in the 2012-14 period were men. The decline in male victimisation since 1989-90 has been more pronounced than that of females; the latter has levelled off at 0.8 per 100,000 in recent years while that of males has continued to decline, and is now at 1.3. Men make up 21% of intimate partner homicide victims and 35% of all domestic violence victims. Men also make up 88% of perpetrators of all homicides; their mean age is surprisingly close to that of female offenders (34.2 years to 34.4 years), whereas female victims are slightly older than male victims, 38.3 years to 37.2 years. Forty seven per cent of offenders had some form of criminal history, although the figure may well be much higher due to incomplete records; 23% of offenders had a previous assault conviction (excluding another 3% with a sexual assault history). A fifth of all perpetrators had a history of domestic violence, even if the murder they committed was not in a domestic setting.
The use of firearms has also declined — from around 25% of all murders at the end of the 1980s to 13% in 2013-14.
At 15%, indigenous Australians were significantly over-represented among victims; women make up a greater proportion of indigenous victims — 41%; 62% of all indigenous victims are killed in domestic homicides (the non-indigenous figure is 38%). The indigenous homicide rate has also fallen significantly, from above 12 per 100,000 in 1989 to 4.9 in 2013-14 — but that’s still more than five times the non-indigenous rate. Indigenous people are also overrepresented as homicide perpetrators, forming 17% of offenders — although there’s been a massive fall in the male indigenous offending rate per 100,000 population — by more than 70%.
Canberra has the lowest incidence of homicide, at around half the national average; the Northern Territory has the highest, at around 7.0, or seven times the national rate. On average, homicides are likely to occur in a home, likely to involve stabbing or beating, it’s more likely to occur on a Sunday or a Thursday and it’s more likely to occur during the evening or after midnight.
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Why are up to 190 lives being spared this year compared to the time when Bob Hawke was prime minister? The first significant falls in the homicide rate came before John Howard’s gun laws, so the relationship between the decline and gun laws isn’t clear-cut. What does seem to be clear is that there was no spike in knife homicides after those gun laws were introduced, suggesting arguments from gun advocates that murderers would simply use another weapon wasn’t borne out.
Separate data suggests that once the AIC data is updated, it will show a further fall. While Victorian homicide statistics are stable, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data shows homicide incidents halving in that state since the end of the 1990s — and after plateauing in the late 2000s and early part of this decade, they fell significantly in 2015 and 2016, although more strongly outside Sydney than within it. Adjusted for population growth and the size of New South Wales (between a quarter and a third of all homicides take place in that state), that means the welcome fall in murder will continue.