Law & justice

12 ways to reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates

Experts and reports proposed numerous measures to reduce incarceration rates of Aboriginal people. They range from spiritual healing programs to justice reinvestment.

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How can we reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates?

Of Aboriginal people aged 19 to 20 years who have been to prison, more than 60% reoffend. To reduce soaring Aboriginal prison rates it is essential to invest in psycho-social healing, counselling, empowerment, education and rehabilitation.

As with many programs designed to 'cure' Aboriginal issues, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A program that works in Menindee might not work in Wilcannia at all. Or vice versa.


You can donate money to the crowd-funding campaign Free Her which goes towards paying off unpaid fines for Aboriginal women facing prison. (The average fine is about $3,000.)

Find alternative responses to suspension

Research has found that young Aboriginal people are more likely to go to jail if they have limited educational opportunities. And a a long-term study (International Youth Development Study) found young people who were suspended or excluded from education were much more likely to develop anti-social behaviours and engage in criminal activity, which could eventually result in incarceration.

Reduce the age of criminal responsibility

In every state and territory in Australia, the age of criminal liability is 10. This means that any child aged ten or older can be arrested, summonsed or found guilty of a criminal offence.

When a child is found guilty of an offence, they are sentenced by the Children’s Court, or the Koori Youth Court if they are Aboriginal and are eligible for this alternative.

Australia's age of criminal liability is low compared with other countries, and many argue it should be raised to 14, the most common minimum age of criminal responsibility around the world. If a child is locked up at an early age they are much more likely to return to the prison system as an adult.


Amnesty International's petition "Raise the Age" calls to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 14. Sign the petition

Most countries have an age of 12 and above. Countries in Africa, south-west Asia and the USA have ages lower than that.
Minimum age of criminal responsibility around the world. Note the other countries have an age equal or worse to that of Australia.

Community empowerment: self-determination

One of the most powerful ways to reduce Aboriginal prison rates is self-determination empowering communities to help themselves.

In many Aboriginal communities, community leaders and respected elders already play a role in resolving disputes and breaches of the law. They help make the criminal justice system more accessible, relevant and responsive for their people and within their communities. This, in turn, helps authorities respect the law and authority of the elders. Elders have used the strength of their law and culture to reconnect offenders with family and community, to heal relationships, conduct community wide mediations, provide personal and cultural information in formal court processes, and achieve fair outcomes.

Many Aboriginal people are ready to offer solutions but are not heard. Only 2 out of the 16 justice programs operating in Queensland in 2016 were Aboriginal-led.

But if blanket government policies stand in the way of their empowerment, leadership and healing, then the rates will escalate.

Story: The Maranguka project: an outstanding success

The Maranguka project in Bourke, 800 kms north-west of Sydney, is an example of how successful self-determination can be and how justice reinvestment can work.

Money that is usually spent on prisons and policing now supports community-led projects to prevent offending in the first place.

The project's results are "outstanding":

  • 20% less domestic violence incidents recorded by police
  • 30% increase in Year 12 student retention
  • 40% fewer charges across the top 5 juvenile offence categories
  • $3 million saved across the 3-year project (2015–2017)

Better care after release from prison

Inside prison there are predictable patterns that guide prisoners and help them stay sane. "It's structured," says Pat Aboud, who has served for more than 28 years in the NSW prison service. "They've got status in prison, where in the world they've got nothing. They get paid to work. They've got camaraderie. They know who the officers are. They get free medical." When they are released, these patterns disappear from one day to the next. This is the time they need support the most.

The hardest time he has had since getting out of jail was immediately after his release, says ex-prisoner Shannon: "I’d have to say when I first got out after seven years, I couldn’t adapt to outside society, I knew the inside society. It’s a freaky world. I just couldn’t adjust straight away.”

Once released, Aboriginal people are likely to die from alcohol-related harms, preventable health conditions and suicide, contrary to their non-Aboriginal peers who are at risk of post-release death from accidental drug overdose, particularly opioids.

Parole officers, preferably also of Aboriginal heritage, can help ease transition. White people make Shannon uncomfortable, he says, it has been easier to connect with his Aboriginal parole officer who also helps him stay away from alcohol and hard drugs. Men’s groups are a low-cost measure for prison-to-community continuity of care, and elder engagement in prison programs has received overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Many get out of prison with very little support, money, plans, or hope.

— Jack Bulman, chief executive of health promotion charity, Mibbinbah

Adequate legal representation

Many towns and communities need adequate legal representation to avoid Aboriginal people being remanded for extended periods of time without contact from a lawyer.

The Aboriginal Legal Service needs to be notified in all cases to provide support. Generally, lawyers and advocates need more time and resources when working with government agencies .

A widespread lack of understanding criminal justice processes causes Aboriginal people to not attend court or fail to comply with court orders .

Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers can help improve the relationship between Aboriginal people and police.

Employment and leadership

Employment and Aboriginal leadership seem to be two crucial ingredients for a successful recipe.

In Menindee, a strong group of Aboriginal women held positions on committees and worked as liaison officers with police. When there was no police around it were the women who dealt with the offenders.

Jobs in tourism and horticulture as well as traineeships for high school students gave the youth of Menindee something to aim for.

Both programs helped to reduce the rates of domestic violence to one fourth of those in Wilcannia . The women in the committee felt that they could control decisions that affected them.

Be careful though when you compare Aboriginal communities. Wilcannia is bigger, more remote and has more Aboriginal inhabitants than Menindee.

Recreation programmes

For young offenders, sport, music and IT have been suggested as the three main passages into their imaginations, or a mentoring program.

"That costs a lot of money," admits Sam Jeffries, former co-chair of the Congress of Australia's First Peoples, "but we are quite comfortable and relaxed about accepting the cost to society when they are institutionalised." . In Western Australia, it costs more than $120,000 a year to lockup a prisoner .

In NSW, the Clean Slate Without Prejudice program allows prisoners to leave jail 3 times a week for boxing training. The program is successful because young offenders are mentored by elders who respect police. Witnessing this respect, and that police care about the young offenders, changes attitudes and reduces the likelihood of going back inside. And once outside, the mentored inmates become mentors themselves, influencing kids not to make the mistakes they did.

[Australia is] a nation that often seems prepared to hopelessly tolerate the fact that Indigenous people are far more likely than other inmates to end up back in prison.

— Sydney Morning Herald

Circle sentencing

A promising approach to reduce recidivism (when offenders re-offend) is circle sentencing where Aboriginal people judge their peers along with jurisdictional experts. Canadian Aboriginal people were successful in reducing recidivism rates through development of discrete and culturally designed programs, including the world's first Aboriginal-run prison .

High recidivism rates for Aboriginal juveniles tell us that a punitive response is simply not working.

— Wayne Martin, Western Australian Chief Justice

The Youth Drug and Alcohol Court (YDAC) was a pilot program introduced in 2000 in NSW and operated in Sydney. It aimed to reduce offending by reducing drug and alcohol use amongst young people, and offered them a range of therapeutic interventions .

YDAC was very similar to circle sentencing in that it was targeted toward serious offenders and could spare them from a custodial sentence. YDAC was one of the few "good news stories" for young Aboriginal offenders.

However, in July 2012 the Australian government closed YDAC after 12 years of operation, citing the low number of graduates, on average 17 a year, from the $4 million-a-year program . However, this number did not include ''self-discharged'' youngsters who left early, usually after five months, on the advice of the court's solicitors.

I knew that if I did the [YDAC] program I'd stay out of custody. So I knuckled down. I got my driver's licence and a job. If I was behind bars I would've been thinking 'just get me out of here'.

— 17-year-old YDAC graduate

Community Corrections orders

Community Corrections orders allow offenders to be supervised in their community while doing programs that address their crimes.

Unfortunately not many Aboriginal people are put on this program, especially in regional or remote communities, due to a lack of resources .

Healing programmes

Instead of expanding work camps Australian states could copy the Canadian model of healing lodges. Healing lodges are based on Aboriginal culture and have a majority of Aboriginal staff. There is also a lot of therapeutic treatment for residents to overcome the causes that have led to them (re)offending , which include addiction, intergenerational and historical traumas, grief and loss.

Spiritual healing programs have been introduced in regional South Australia along with Aboriginal liaison officers. Spiritual healing draws on the strength, wisdom and spirit of Aboriginal ancestors, Elders and the land to heal the spirit of Aboriginal people by strengthening the connections to family, community, land and culture.

One such spiritual healing programs written from an Aboriginal perspective for Aboriginal men and their families is Red Dust Healing, operating in Queensland and New South Wales.

Fact Aboriginal actor Jack Charles and singer Archie Roach once teamed up to go into youth prisons and offer healing programs.

Sometimes it takes a [healing] program like that, delivered by Aboriginal people, to actually work.

— Jack Charles, Aboriginal actor

Justice Reinvestment (JR)

Justice reinvestment is a criminal justice approach that diverts a portion of funds spent on imprisonment to local communities where there is a high concentration of offenders. Money that would have been spent on imprisonment is reinvested in programs and services that address the underlying causes of crime in these communities .

The justice reinvestment model is based on evidence that a large number of young offenders often come from a relatively small number of disadvantaged communities .

It aims to reduce offending and imprisonment and increase community safety.

"Under a justice reinvestment approach, if there is a connection in a community between crime and drug and alcohol problems, then services are established to address these problems. If the drug and alcohol problems are symptoms of other issues like poor parenting, or family violence, then services are established to address these problems," explains Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda .

Other areas of reinvestment include redevelopment of abandoned housing, better coordination of services such as substance abuse and mental health treatment and support, social and emotional well-being promotion activities, supported housing, transition to employment, and continuing education . Priorities and needs should be identified in consultation with the community.

Justice reinvestment has been proven in some USA states and the UK to be cheaper than building prisons and to have a bigger impact on creating safe communities . Texas recorded the lowest violent crime rate in 30 years and could close a large prison .

An advisory group provides input to the government on justice reinvestment policies, monitors the proportion of funds redirected from corrections and detention and monitors the levels of Aboriginal young people in detention .

Asked about what is necessary to make justice reinvestment successful in Australia, American experts recommended

  • Have very clear aims. This includes what counts as success: Is it about particular outcomes (and which ones?), the integrity of the process, the scope of reforms achieved? Or all of the above?
  • Balance involvement of all groups. Balance the involvement of government, experts and community. For example, get locals involved with data mapping: that way, they can give guidance about what data would be most useful, and the knowledge gained wont just be 'owned' by the experts.
  • Have broad stakeholder representation. Don't just include justice and corrections people, and not just policy makers. Add local community representatives, for example.
  • Plan for the long term. The timeframe for justice reinvestment programs should be long enough to ensure true community buy-in, allow proper assessment of the impact of policy changes, and to have technical and other support embedded in a location long enough to guide during execution, not just set-up.
  • Evaluate independently. Build in independent evaluation of justice reinvestment programs to collect lessons learned and guide future directions.

Critics warn that custodial projects are already struggling financially and that allocations should not be reduced further. There would be no control if all monies taken from custodial projects were diverted to justice reinvestment schemes. Also, police "work to their own rules" and might not collaborate with justice reinvestment staff.

Others believe that communities would be better off investing more money in education and employment before the offending starts. Rather than "tinkering with the justice system" programs should address the key causes why people offend, such as unemployment and substance abuse.

In May 2012 the Aboriginal Legal service of NSW/ACT started a Justice Reinvestment Campaign. The campaign aimed to lobby the government to fund alternative pathways for Aboriginal young people who may otherwise be destined to re-offending, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.

In 2017, justice reinvestment has reportedly saved almost $3m in the far western New South Wales town of Bourke and was forecast to save an additional $7m within the next 5 years. The savings are based on the reduced number of police hours, reduced daily cost of imprisonment, fewer bail breaches, fines and other penalties, reduced number of Centrelink crisis payments, fewer days absent from work and school, and reduced court costs for police and defendants. See also story further up on this page.

If we are actually serious about closing the massive gap in life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, then we have to get serious about tried and tested alternatives like justice reinvestment.

— Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Video: What is Justice Reinvestment?


In Oregon, USA, juvenile incarceration dropped 72% after money was reinvested in well-resourced justice and community programs for juvenile offenders .

Stop being tough on crime

Territories and states need to stop the 'tough on crime' approach which politicians love to promote during election time. Relaxed bail laws could reduce the number of people, especially children, who are on remand for minor offences.

Gino Vumbaca, Executive Director of the Australian National Council on Drugs, says that it was time "that we stopped talking about being soft or tough on crime and instead talked more about being smart or dumb on crime, then we might start making the changes that are needed to make a difference in the community." .

Aboriginal people who are already disadvantaged are more vulnerable to being fined and are less likely to be able to pay. As a result they accrue debt and their licenses or registrations might be cancelled without their knowledge .

Victoria and Queensland are the only states where a person can be arrested for being drunk in public.

Western Australia is toughest

Far too many minor offenders and fine defaulters are in prison. Unlike New South Wales, Western Australia jails fine defaulters in order to wipe their debt. The number of people jailed for unpaid fines soared 600% in the five years from 2009 to 2014 – in NSW the practice of jailing fine defaulters was outlawed in 1988. It is understood that some debts are wiped away at $250 a day in prison.

Nearly all the fine defaults are poverty-related . One quarter of the Western Australian prison population is comprised of fine defaulters, almost half of whom are Aboriginal . These people had committed no other crime . No wonder that all 14 of Western Australia’s prisons are overcrowded.

In 2014, a young Aboriginal woman died while in police custody for unpaid fines of less than $1,000, adding to the toll of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Fine defaulters in Western Australian prisons
source: TotalAboriginalAboriginal share

3.8% of Western Australia's population identified as Aboriginal in the 2006 census.

Make prisons culturally appropriate

In Port Augusta an Aboriginal unit provides 'culturally appropriate detention' and programs. Facing the Flinders Ranges it is hoped that the unit is more comforting to those held off-country .

The only effective rehabilitation system we have for Aboriginal men is prison, because that is where they get fed, are given some education and forced to give up alcohol.

— Dr Alex Brown, Baker Institute, Alice Springs

Independent coronial investigation

"There is a distrust in the community of authority," knows Sarah Crellin, principal solicitor for the Aboriginal Legal Service. "It is my experience in my practice that many families grow suspicious when they see police investigating police."

An independent body could rebuild trust and investigate, for example, why not a single police officer has ever been convicted for a death in custody. Adequate funding would allow the coroner’s court to do its own investigation.

Shifting blame

Shifting the blame is another approach to help turn around Aboriginal prison rates. It is easy "hiding behind the excuse of racism" and pretend it's the government's responsibility to prevent Aboriginal people going to prison .

Once Aboriginal people stop "claiming that the past is to blame for the wrong decisions" that land them in jail they might realise that they have a hand in changing their current situation.

You can put an individual offender through the best-resourced, most effective rehabilitation program, but if they are returning to a community with few opportunities, their chances of staying out of prison are limited.

— Tom Calma, former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner


Croakey has published an ebook that summarises a lot of ways to reduce prison rates. #JustJustice – Tackling the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples contains more than 90 articles from more than 70 contributors, and profiles a range of ways forward in addressing over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Free download at Croakey


View article sources (34)

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[2] [2a] 'Excluding Indigenous youth from schools may severely increase their risk of incarceration', The Conversation 19/9/2017
[3] 'I know our criminal justice system inside out, and it is being misused', Shahleena Musk, The Guardian 27/3/2018
[4] ''How many times does one person have to be tested?'', SMH 28/7/2019
[5] [5a] [5b] 'Doing time', SMH Good Weekend 4/3/2017, p.17
[6] [6a] 'The Shed: 'I keep coming because there are people who listen'', The Guardian Australia, 22/2/2017
[7] [7a] [7b] [7c] 'Yes, we jail too many Indigenous Australians – but what happens next is worse', The Guardian Australia, 21/2/2017
[8] 'Justice focus in WA', Koori Mail 400 p.10
[9] [9a] 'A tale of two towns', Indigenous Law Bulletin July/August 2009 pp.7
[10] 'Leadership improves quality of life: report', SMH 19/2/2009
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[12] 'Call for more prison research', Koori Mail 415 p.32
[13] 'Inquiry reveals huge jail rates', Koori Mail 474 p.11
[14] 'The youth drug and alcohol court', Indigenous Law Bulletin July/August 2009 pp.12
[15] [15a] 'Youth drug court victim of budget cuts, say Salvos', SMH 11/7/2012
[16] 'New approach call over jail numbers', Koori Mail 498 p.9
[17] 'Work camps call rejected', Koori Mail 461 p.16
[18] [18a] 'Down and out and back again - Lunch with Jack Charles', SMH 15/7/2017
[19] [19a] [19b] '20 years later, and 269 more are dead', Koori Mail 499 p.5
[20] [20a] [20b] [20c] 'Justice reinvestment for aboriginal young people campaign', media release, Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, 2/5/2012
[21] 'Give reinvestment in justice a fair go', Koori Mail 505 p.24
[22] 'Jail 'holds no fear for the hungry'', The Australian 15/4/2013
[23] 'Campaign aimed at justice for your youth', Koori Mail 525 p.5
[24] Justice Reinvestment Australia newsletter, 16/12/2013
[25] 'Towards a just system', Koori Mail 511 p.24
[26] 'Justice reinvestment won't work: Report', National Indigenous Radio Service, 5/2/2013,, retrieved 18/2/2013
[27] 'Aboriginal-led justice project saves rural town almost $3m', The Guardian 28/11/2018
[28] '2009 Social Justice and Native Title Reports Community Guide', Australian Human Rights Commission
[29] [29a] [29b] 'Western Australia urged to stop jailing fine defaulters', The Stringer 28/2/2015
[30] 'Barnett's Petty Law And Order Policy Encourages Deaths In Custody', New Matilda 7/11/2014
[31] NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs
[32] 'Stop reporting and start doing, lawyers tell NSW inquiry into 'inhumane' Indigenous incarceration', The Guardian 26/10/2020
[33] 'Tough love needed', reader's letter, Koori Mail 502 p.25
[34] 'Calma's final report points to brighter future', Koori Mail 468 p.7

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Korff, J 2022, 12 ways to reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates, <>, retrieved 22 June 2024

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