Arresting incarceration

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Aboriginal Australians are nearly 18 times more likely than non-Aboriginal Australians to end up in prison. This is six times larger than the disparity between African-American and white imprisonment rates in the United States. Sadly, efforts to reduce the rate of Indigenous imprisonment in Australia have been a dismal failure. In Arresting Incarceration, Don Weatherburn examines efforts to improve these appalling statistics and provides possible solutions for improved outcomes.

The 1991 Royal Commission blamed the high rate of Aboriginal deaths on the over-representation of Aboriginal Australians in prisons and police lock-ups. It recommended sweeping changes to criminal justice, and economic and social reforms designed to empower Aboriginal people and to reduce the rate of Indigenous imprisonment. Then-Prime Minister Paul Keating said: ‘…there is no more central issue to our national identity and self-esteem than the injustices brought home to us all by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’.

Keating’s government then implemented almost all the recommended reforms. But the rate of Indigenous imprisonment increased. Indeed, between 1992 and 2012, the rate of Indigenous imprisonment per head of population soared by more than 50 per cent.

Dr Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, explains why his work is so important.

Firstly, I wanted to examine the events leading up to Royal Commission, but more than that, I wanted to understand why, given the changes that were made, subsequent efforts to reduce the rate of Indigenous imprisonment have failed so miserably. We can do things right now to reduce the rate of Indigenous imprisonment, such as investing more money in rehabilitation programs for Indigenous offenders leaving prison.
If we want a substantial and enduring reduction in the rate of Indigenous imprisonment, however, we need to reduce the number of crime and violence-prone Indigenous communities.
The only way to do this is to reduce the epidemic levels of Indigenous alcohol and drug abuse, the high rate of Indigenous child neglect and abuse, the low rate of Indigenous school completion and achievement and the high rate of Indigenous unemployment.”

In Arresting Incarceration, Weatherburn reviews the evidence and suggests in detail how these goals can be achieved. Hepresents new analyses of unpublished data drawn from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the National Torres Strait Islander Survey and is the most comprehensive challenge yet to the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the policy changes that flowed from it.

Controversially for some, Weatherburn challenges the widespread view that Indigenous over-representation in prison is a reflection of racial bias in the operation of the criminal justice system - and that Indigenous empowerment is the best way to reduce Indigenous imprisonment.

In 1988 Dr Don Weatherburn took up the position of Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research: a position he has held since. He was awarded a Public Service Medal in January 1998 and made a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 2006. He is a prolific author and respected commentator.

Media enquiries

P: 02 6246 1605
commsmedia@aiatsis.gov.au

Last reviewed: 6 Aug 2015