Why are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over represented in Australian prisons?

Why are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over represented in Australian prisons?

  • Type of paperEssay (Any Type)
  • SubjectSociology
  • Number of pages6
  • Writer levelUniversity
  • Format of citationAPA
  • Number of cited resources6

I have researched and written quite a lot on this paper, however it is a bit of a mess and needs a fair bit of work to get it structured properly and grammatically correct. some of it will need to be written from scratch and other parts just reworded. There is some good info in there, a lot of notes too. So if someone is able to help me sort this out i would be greatly appreciative

Essay Question: Why are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over represented in Australian prisons?

According to Cunneen, White and Richards (2015), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are overwhelmingly over-represented in Australian prisons and other areas of the criminal justice system. These two groups, while having very different cultures, are linked by their shared histories of colonization. Since European colonialism in the late 1700s Indigenous people have experienced rapid changes and with this a wide range of injustices have occurred (Harry, 2008). The aim of this essay is to offer a theoretical explanation of this phenomenon as it applies to Indigenous incarceration rates compared to that of non-indigenous people. This can be explained in socioeconomic terms and institutional discrimination resulting from an underlying power struggle between the dominant Anglo-group and the indigenous community. It will then be shown how the impacts of colonialism and neo-colonial practices have resulted in a self-perpetuating cycle of Indigenous social disadvantage and criminalisation. Finally, it will be established that some forms of discrimination still exist within the criminal justice system with Indigenous people much more likely to receive a criminal sentence than non-Indigenous.

Indigenous youth are more over-represented than adults. The youth are not really given cautions. They are over represented in every element of the justice system to sentencing more like it to give a custodial sentence, (Fee and Russell, 2007), less predominantly given bail and when bail id granted more provisions are attached. They are less likely to be given cautions. Indigenous people has been described by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner Mick Gooda as ‘one of the most urgent human rights issues facing Australian and as “a catastrophe in anyone’s language” (Fee and Russell, 2007). Ferrante, (2013), says that they are among the most imprisoned people in the world. Over half of young people in Australian prisons are from this group.  Ferrante goes on to say that this is a severe over-representation since Indigenous young people represent 5% of the youth in Australia. The NT and WA have the highest rates of incarceration. Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda (2014) points out that ‘retention’ rates for Indigenous young people are better than for school (Ferrante, 2013)

There are numerous factors that seem to explain the reason as to why the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are over-represented in Australian prisons. The reasons include the colonial discourses, stolen generations where some people have been taken away from their families, therefore, suffering from trauma that might increase their rates of being arrested, Disconnection from land where the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people find difficulties living on their traditional lands increasing their possibility of coming into conflict with the law. Other reasons include , Police behaviour where some police officers might discriminate on the aboriginal people,  Social and economic situation since Poverty and unemployment, especially among the youth have rocked the Aboriginal people in remote areas (Cunneen et al, 2015), inadequate legal representation, people’s attitude, lack of language skills that makes Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people be sentenced without having fully understood the court process since English is not their first language, lack of accommodation and reoffending (Ferrante, 2013).  Since colonisation Indigenous people have to struggle against racial discrimination and denial of Indigenous rights. The dispossession of their land, therefore, creating ruptures within their culture.

Having suffered from historical injustices that include marginalization, racism, and colonization, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have suffered from high levels of unemployment, limited business opportunities, limited job prospects and low income among the indigenous people have not been a rare situation (Fee and Russell, 2007). As a result, poverty levels are high, literacy levels are low, and there is low home ownership and lower life expectancy among others. The young generation possesses low post-school qualifications which reduce their chances of securing jobs both in the private and the public sectors. Due to these challenges, the social and economic well-being is adversely affected.

According to the social strain theory which states that societal pressures may force people to engage in crime so as to meet societal standards, some of them tend to engage in criminal activities leading to a high number of prisoners (Agnew, 2006). What is clear is that many Aboriginal people have grown up with the knowledge that their own parentage and heritage are stigmatised, marked with fear and shame by the wider society, and exposing them to the unpredictable consequences of local authorities’ random exercise of power. Here is a window on a world where the notion of race was mobilised not so much against the colour of the skin as against the origin of that colour.

Colonial discourses and resulting social and economic marginalisation have, however, been considered the key issues pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander over representation in Australian prisons. The colonial discourses include: the history of genocide, assimilation, Christian missionaries, stolen generation, social & economical marginalisation: how colonial discourses have led to this and rates of offending. Since Indigenous colonisation people have to struggle against racial discrimination and denial of Indigenous rights. It is this resistance that had led to a distrust of police and justice systems.

Group conflict theory or the social class theory, on the other hand, is applicable when addressing issues of conflict over land and resources and conflict within the criminal justice system. For 60,000 years, Indigenous people had lived harmoniously with their people and the land (Cunneen et al, 2015). They had ways of existing and co-existing with their land, living nomadically, never taking more than was needed to survive. Europeans settled in Australia in 1788 and quickly became the dominant group, this power and authority moved in with prospects for land, crops and cattle (Cunneen et al, 2015). For the Indigenous people, this marked a period of quite rapid change at an ultimately unfortunate cost to their traditional way of living.

Injustices in policy is another issue. Initially, there were periods of open warfare, which saw massacres of both adults and children, this continued to the late 1920s. In the 19th century over 100 indigenous people were executed, this being after the law had been abolished for white people (Harry, 2008). This was meant as a show of social control and moral lessons, to teach the ‘savages a lesson’ by use of public display.

In an attempt to bring the issue to a halt, there has been moves such as colonial warfare, ‘protectionists’ acts, the introduction of Christian missionaries with ideals of assimilation, the removal of children from families and institutional bias. These colonial discourses have resulted in social and economic marginalisation and are key issues about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander over-representation in Australian prisons. When these protective acts were abolished later, this did not lead to a reduction in official crime statistics.

Social control disorganisation can be used to relate to differences in attitudes between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people with regards to societal institutions (family and school). Raising a family in indigenous families is traditionally different than European family. It is done through kinship and wider community. Colonisation has disrupted some of these cultural patterns of child raising by the taking of land as well as the removal of Aboriginal children under protectionist policies. Johnson et al. claim that this disruption has caused problems with parenting which may have contributed to cycles of intergenerational anti-social behaviour. Aboriginal children grow up with a different attachment to such institutions, and this may make deviancy more prominent.  Policing remains concerned with controlling boundaries between indigenous and non-indigenous, and there is still a view of controlling the aboriginal disorder. Aboriginal people are over policed and under-policed in domains (such as rural outback) where there are no white interests to safeguard.

In conclusion, the over-representation of Indigenous people can be explained by social and economic disadvantages stemming from a history of a power struggle between the colonisers and the colonised history of colonisation, welfare intervention and criminalisation, effects of social economic marginalisation and racism and discrimination within the justice system. Although theories such as social disorganisation, social strain, structural and cultural anomie could be used to explain the issue, they cannot be very effective individually. They ought to be used collectively to be able to explain the issue of over-representation.


Cunneen, C., White, R., & Richards, K. (2015). Juvenile Justice: Youth and    crime in Australia. Sydney, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Holmes, J., & Weatherburn, D. (2010). Re-thinking Indigenous over representation in prison. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 45(4), 559-576. Retrieved from http://search.informit.com.au.elibrary.jcu.edu.au

Ferrante, A.M. (2013). Assessing the influence of “standard” and “culturally specific” risk factors on the prevalence and frequency of offending: The case of Indigenous Australians. Race and Justice, 3(1), 58-82. doi:10.1177/2153368712462410.

Harry, B. (2008). Crime, Aboriginality and the Decolonisation of Justice. Sydney, Australia: Hawkins Press.

Hayes, H., & Prenzler, T. (2014). An Introduction to Crime and Criminology. Pearson Australia.

Keys Young, (2009). Homelessness in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context and its possible implications for the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP). Canberra: Commonwealth Dept. of Health and Aged Care.