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Incarceration rates for Indigenous Women a National Shame

Commission Commission – General

20 March 2003

Incarceration
rates for Indigenous Women a National Shame

Indigenous women
live in 'a landscape of risk' and as a nation we should be ashamed that
we have not addressed this urgent problem, Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Justice Commissioner Dr Bill Jonas said today.

Launching his annual
Social Justice Report, Dr Jonas said there was a crisis in the level and
type of contact of Indigenous women with correctional systems in Australia.

  • Indigenous women
    are currently incarcerated at a rate higher than any other group in
    Australia - including that of Indigenous men.
  • Over-representation
    of Indigenous women occurs in the context of intolerably high levels
    of family violence, over-policing for selected offences, ill-health,
    unemployment and poverty.
  • Studies of Indigenous
    women in prison reveal life in a society fraught with danger from violence.
  • Removal of Indigenous
    women from the community has significant consequences and potentially
    exposes children to risk of neglect, abuse, hunger and homelessness.
  • Indigenous women
    also serve comparatively shorter sentences, suggesting a general failure
    to employ the principle of imprisonment as a last resort.
  • Once imprisoned,
    recidivism statistics show that Indigenous women are at greater risk
    of returning to jail.

"These women
live in a landscape of risk and suffer at the crossroads of their race
and gender," said Dr Jonas. "These women are some of the most
vulnerable people in our society and we must try now to address these
alarming rates of incarceration."

The number of Indigenous
women incarcerated has increased from 104 in 1991 to 370 Indigenous women
in 2001 - a 255.8% increase over the decade. For the June 2002 quarter,
Indigenous women were over-represented at 19.6 times the non-Indigenous
rate compared to Indigenous men at 15.2 times.

Election driven law
and order campaigns primed to drive up incarceration, a lack of government
action to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal
Deaths in Custody and lack of judicial activism to implement the recommendations
of the Royal Commission on non custodial sentences are some ongoing causes
of over representation.

Dr Jonas called for
release programs to address:

  • Transitional
    housing after release
  • Community based,
    Indigenous specific programs to help women deal with the effects of
    violence and to develop alternative strategies for coping with future
    violence
  • Support for women
    to maintain contact with their children while they are incarcerated
    or regular information about the well being of their children.
  • Programs which
    are sensitive to the kinship obligations of Indigenous women and supportive
    of these roles.
  • Financial issues,
    employment, education and training
  • Access to health
    services, including drug abuse rehabilitation.

Overview

Recidivism rates:
Recidivism rates are extremely high in all States and Territories. Nearly
3 in every 4 (76 percent) of all Indigenous prisoners had been previously
imprisoned.

Types of crime: There
has been a steady and significant increase in most categories of offences
- including homicide, assault and related offences and robbery. Nationally,
Indigenous women comprise nearly 80% of all cases where women are detained
in police custody for public drunkenness.

Over-policing: There
are indications of over-policing of Indigenous women in some areas. In
New South Wales, the Select Committee into the Increase in Prison Population
found in 2001 that the most significant contributing factor to increases
in the rates of incarceration of Indigenous women was the increase in
the remand population. There was no evidence to suggest that an in increase
in actual crime accounted for the prison increase.

Sentencing patterns:
Indigenous women tend to receive shorter sentences than non-Indigenous
women. The rates suggest that Indigenous women are not being provided
with non-custodial sentencing options. Shorter sentences also appear to
be linked to high rates of incarceration for public order offences.

Characteristics of
imprisoned women: In general, Indigenous women in jail are slightly younger
than non-Indigenous women. There are no national figures for prisoners
with children, but most incarcerated women are mothers. Indigenous women
often enter custody with poor physical or mental health. Research in Victoria
has revealed that many women self harm soon after release from prison.
This includes drug overdose & other types of self harm. In NSW in
comparison to a non-Indigenous woman, an Aboriginal woman is:

  • Four times more
    likely to be murdered;
  • More than twice
    as likely to be the victim of sexual assault, or sexual assault against
    children;
  • Four times more
    likely to be a victim of assault;
  • Seven times more
    likely to be a victim of grievous bodily harm.

For further detail
on women in corrections including statistics visit:

Media contact:
Janine MacDonald 02 9284 9880 or 0408 469 347

Last
updated 20 March 2003.