Incarceration in Australia



At June 2017 there were 11,307 prisoners, nationally, who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, a 7% increase (711 prisoners) from 30 June 2016. The number of non-Indigenous prisoners increased by 6% (1,654 prisoners). This means that 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.

In NSW, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders comprised 24% (3,197 prisoners) of the prisoner population. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander age standardised imprisonment rate was 12 times more than the non-Indigenous age standardised imprisonment rate (2066 prisoners per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult population compared to 179 prisoners per 100,000 adult non-Indigenous population).

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.

To put it more starkly, between June 2016-June 2017 the rate of incarceration per 100 000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders increased from 2346 to 2434 (or 4%), while the non-Indigenous imprisonment rate increased from 154 to 160 prisoners per 100,000 non-Indigenous population (or 4%). Just over three out of four Indigenous prisoners had been imprisoned previously, compared to just one out of two for non-Indigenous.

In this period every state, but neither of the territories, experienced an increase in Aboriginal incarceration rates. Western Australia was highest with 4063, followed by the Northern Territory with 2756 per 100 000.

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 most common offence/charge for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners was acts intended to cause injury (35% or 3,967 prisoners) followed by unlawful entry with intent (14% or 1,607 prisoners). The most common offence/charge for non-Indigenous prisoners was Illicit drug offences  and acts intended to cause injury.

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 tended to worsen and prolong cycles of violence.

[Unless noted otherwise source for all data in this section: ABS – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Prisoner Characteristics Dec 2017]


Indigenous Juvenile Detention Figures June Quarter 2017, Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

The most recent data on Indigenous juvenile (aged 10-17) detention revealed that in June 2017 Indigenous young people were 24 times as likely to be incarcerated than their non-Indigenous counterparts. In fact from June

2013 to June 2017 Indigenous juveniles outnumbered non-Indigenous juveniles. On an average night in every quarter across this 4 year period there were 419-528 Indigenous people, compared to 383-458 non-Indigenous youth.

Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders not only represent a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population at 53%, they also have experience a higher proportion of their youth in detention. In the June 2017 quarter 91% of young Indigenous young people were in detention compared with 76% for non-Indigenous youth.

In terms of rates over half of all young people in detention were Indigenous. In the June 2017 quarter that meant a rate of 37 per 10 000 young (10-17 years) Indigenous people compared with 1.5 per 10 000 for non-Indigenous young people.  Most of this over-representation was higher in sentenced detention than in unsentenced (either on remand or awaiting sentencing), compared to non-indigenous young people.

All date in this section is sources from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Bulletin 143 – December 2017, ‘Youth Detention Population in Australia’.  For all the detail, including explanation of technical methods visit the Report here.

For  a more detailed picture and analysis of the of the experience of imprisoned Indigenous youth see the 2011 Federal report, Doing Time – Time For Doing: Indigenous Youth in the Criminal Justice System.


While these trends, both juvenile and adult, need to be seen in the context of overall national increases in imprisonment rates (6% in the adult age range for the 2016-17 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’.

*NB all juvenile data excludes Victoria as data was unavailable from that State during this period.



Image Courtesy ABS – Prisoners in Australia, Dec 2017

The latest ABS figures revealed that between June 2016 and June 2017 Australia had a 6% increase in the number of sentenced adults imprisoned. Numerically this was a rise to 41 202 persons from 38 845 persons. In terms of the rate per 100 000 people this increased in the same period from 208 to 216, a 4% rise. Men accounted for 92% of the population, with a median age of 35, while for the 8% of women that age was 34. The vast majority (4 out of 5) of prisoners were Australian born.

The most prevalent offences committed were ‘acts intended to cause injury’ (9344 or 23%) and ‘illicit drug offences’ (6155 prisoners or 15%). Since 2016, these two offences had the largest increases in the number of prisoners and accounted for the majority (81%) of the national increase in the prison population (6% or 2357 prisoners).

Perhaps most worryingly, the upward trend of unsentenced prisoners (those either on remand or awaiting sentence) continued with a 7% rise from 12 111 to 12 911. Though this was a decrease on the previous two years which recorded increases of 20% or more. The time people spent on remand  increased from a median 2.9 months to 3.3 months, with the exception of the Northern Territory. which recorded a decrease.

[Source for all data, ABS Prisoners in Australia, Dec 2017]


At June 2017 NSW had the largest prisoner population in the country at 13 149 people, accounting for nearly one-third of the national total; this was an increase of 4%, or 520 prisoners. The was also an increase in the rate of incarceration from 211 per 100 000 to 216 in the same period.

The proportion of men and women  was the same as the national, at 92% for the former and 8% for the latter. Both groups experienced an rate increase from 398 to 406 per 100 000 for men and 31 to 32 per 100 000 from women.Just over half (52%) of the NSW prison population had been previously imprisoned.  The median age of all adult prisoners was 35. At 79% the majority of prisoners were born in Australia, of the 21% born overseas the top two countries of birth were New Zealand and Vietnam, both 12%, or 339 and 329 prisoners, respectively.

The most common offence/charge was Acts intended to cause injury (22% or 2,905 prisoners), followed by Illicit drug offences (18% or 2,340 prisoners) and Sexual assault (12% or 1,672 prisoners)

The median time spent on remand in NSW was 4.2 months which was a national high. Unsentenced prisoners comprised 32% (4269 prisoners) of the prisoner population. The proportion of prisoners who were unsentenced has increased from 22% over the past 10 years.

[Source for all data, ABS Prisoners in Australia – NSW, Dec 2017]



Statistics on an average night in the 2017 June Quarter. Image Courtesy, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

In the June Quarter 2017 (April-June) 964 young people  were in youth detention on an average night. Though numbers have fluctuated over a four year period from June 2013- June 2017, youth detention figures are fairly stable. The great majority were male at 91% and most were aged 10-17. (Some young people aged 18 and over can be held in youth detention for a range of reasons.) Taking just the juvenile population (ages 10-17) that amounts to a rate 3.5 young people per 10 000.

Of these young people 64%, or 2 in 3, were unsentenced (either on remand or awaiting sentencing). That was a fairly stable figure over a four year period from June 2013-June 2017, and sentenced detention has decreased in this period.

Though it experienced an overall decrease, NSW still had the largest number of young people incarcerated throughout 2013-2017, ranging between 259-323 young people each quarter. Queensland followed with a range of 148-203 people for the same period.

In terms of rates of young people in detention on an average night over the four year (2013-2017) period the Northern Territory had the highest rate with 11-23 per 10 000 young people aged 10-17. Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory had the lowest with 1.2-2.7 and 1.5-4.1 per 10 000, respectively.

*NB all juvenile data excludes Victoria as data was unavailable from that State during this period.

[Source for above data: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘Youth Detention Population in Australia’, Bulletin 143, December 2017.]

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