Incarceration of Indigenous People

At June 2016 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accounted for 27% of Australia’s total prison population, but only made up 2% of Australia’s adult (over 18) population. [1] This, despite our 1988-1991 pledges to do something about the unequal justice experienced by First Australians in the wake of the evidence from the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. While we have seen a decline in the rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody, since 1991 the rate of Indigenous people incarcerated has only increased.

Rate of the incarceration of Indigenous people in Australia over 1991-2002, Courtesy AHRC

To put it more starkly, between June 2015-June 2016 the rate of incarceration per 100 000 adults increased 146 to 154 for non-Indigenous people, while for Indigenous people it rose from an already staggeringly high 2 253 to 2 346. 90% of these prisoners were men, compared with 92% in the general population.

In this period every state, barring South Australia, experienced an increase in Aboriginal incarceration rates. Western Australia was highest with 3997, followed by the Northern Territory with 2914 per 100 000 Aboriginal people.

Younger people were over-represented compared to the rest of the population with the median prisoner age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being 31 compared to 36 for other Australians. Of all Aboriginal prisoners, about a quarter (24%) were aged 24 or under.

The offences for which Indigenous people were imprisoned varied with the most common being ‘acts of intent to cause injury’ (the most common offence generally across the whole nation) followed by ‘unlawful entry with intent’. Former Chief Justice of the Northern Territory, Brian Martin noted his significant concern at the levels of violence in these offences and that the community-at-large had failed to break the cycle of violence. Instead, incarceration tends to worse and prolong cycles of violence. [2]


According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, Indigenous Australians aged 10-17 made up 59% of the incarcerated juvenile population, nationwide. And while the rate of imprisonment per 100 000 saw a 15% decline by 2007 from the high of 468 in March 1997, Indigenous juveniles were still incarcerated at a rate of 28 times as high as the general population at the end of that ten year period. [3] For more explanation and a more detailed picture of the experience of imprisoned Indigenous youth see the 2011 Federal report, Doing Time – Time For Doing: Indigenous Youth in the Criminal Justice System.

Persons in juvenile detention centres, from 31 March 1994 to 30 June 2007, by Indigenous status (per 100,000 of that status per year)



While these trends, both juvenile and adult, need to be seen in the context of overall national increases in imprisonment rates (8% in the adult age range for the 2015-16 financial year), they continue to point, as they have for the nearly 30 years since the Royal Commission, to an unequal experience of our criminal justice systems and policy approaches that increasingly rely on custodial options. Further, these high rates continue to show that we have yet to significantly improve the underlying causes of crime that Indigenous people experience at disproportionate rates. Those of particular concern are poverty, homelessness, equitable access to education and entrenched unemployment as well as the underlying racism and specific historical factors that have and continue to contribute to the situation.

For an overview of a range of life experiences and social structures that help explain some of these  factors  see the most recent Prime Minister’s Report on Progress Towards Closing the Gap and also the current National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey.  An older but still illuminating report is also available from the Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘A Statistical Overview of Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander People in Australia’.




[1] All statistical sources excluding juvenile detention rates: ABS Prisoners in Australia 4517.

[2] ACBC, Building Bridges not Wall: Prisons and the Justice System, Social Justice Statement 2011-12

[3] Juvenile Statistics: Australian Institute of Criminology