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Backgrounds of people in contact with the criminal justice system

People may come into contact with your service at a number of points in the criminal justice system, such as for bail conditions or on exiting prison. Many are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and a disproportionate number are of Aboriginal background.

What to consider

People may come into contact with your service at a number of points in the criminal justice system. They may self-refer before their offending matters come to the attention of the police or courts, be referred by the court as part of their bail or sentencing conditions, be on a diversion program, or have finished their sentence and be exiting prison.

There are many health and social factors that are overrepresented in people involved in the criminal justice system as compared to the general population. These include higher levels of drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues and cognitive impairment.

The 2009 Inmate Health Survey found that many prison inmates experience disadvantage as a result of:

abuse, neglect and trauma; poor educational attainment and consequent limited employment opportunities; unstable housing; parental incarceration: juvenile detention; dysfunctional relationships and domestic violence; and previous episodes of imprisonment. (Indig et al 2010a:151)

There are approximately 10,000 people in prison on any one day in NSW, with up to 30,000 cycling through the NSW prison system each year (Corrective Services 2012). Nearly half of these people will be back in prison within two years.

On average over 17,000 people are under the supervision of Community Offender Services (formerly Probation and Parole) through community orders, home detention, bail and/or parole on any given day (Corrective Services 2012). Drug and alcohol use is often a factor in the cycle of offending and imprisonment.

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Disadvantaged backgrounds

Like the majority of drug and alcohol clients, criminal justice clients, according to research both in Australia and overseas, are highly disadvantaged.

When disadvantaged people come in contact with the criminal justice system, their disadvantaged situation often 'tips' them towards prison. Conversely, a person from a more advantaged background who commits the same offence may be steered away from prison due to more comprehensive legal and financial support.

Key social determinants of prisoners in NSW identified in the 2009 NSW Inmate Health Survey (Indig et al 2010a) include the following:

  • Not completing Year 10. Approximately half of participants did not finish Year 10.
  • Accommodation. One in 10 (11%) were living in unsettled accommodation or had no fixed abode prior to their current incarceration, and approximately 30% noted they had accommodation problems in the six months prior to incarceration.
  • Unemployment. 50% of men and 67% of women were unemployed in the six months prior to their imprisonment, with 30% of men and 44% of women being unemployed for five years or longer.
  • Out of home care before the age of 16. 22% of non-Aboriginal male prisoners and 27% of non-Aboriginal female prisoners, and 46% of Aboriginal male prisoners and 45% of Aboriginal female prisoners, had been placed in out of home care as a child.
  • Parental incarceration. Approximately one in five prisoners (18% of men and 17% of women) have had a parent in prison.

It is important to remember that the similarities between drug and alcohol clients and people in contact with the criminal justice system outweigh the differences. The risk factors for relapse of a drug and alcohol problem are similar to the risk factors for offending behaviour. And the underlying social determinants of crime are similar to the social determinants of health.

Working holistically with a person to address their drug and alcohol use can therefore assist in reducing the likelihood of the cycle of crime, relapse and reoffending.

"The similarities between drug and alcohol clients and people in contact with the criminal justice system outweigh the differences. The risk factors for relapse of a drug and alcohol problem are similar to the risk factors for offending behaviour."

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Aboriginal people and the criminal justice system

It's well documented that Aboriginal people are grossly overrepresented in both the Australian and NSW criminal justice systems. The 2011 NSW Inmate Census found that 22.9% of the NSW prison population identified as Indigenous (Corben 2011), compared with only 2.1% of the general population. There's been a 71% increase in overall Aboriginal prisoner rates in Australia, compared with a 25% increase in non-Aboriginal prisoners, between 2001 and 2009 (Indig et al 2010b).

The long-term factors impacting on the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in prison are complex, interconnected and intergenerational. They include (CRC & NADA 2011):

  • Heavy surveillance by criminal justice agencies such as the police, and scrutiny by government departments such as child protection agencies
  • Inability to afford or access legal help
  • Coming from some of the most disadvantaged geographical areas in Australia
  • High levels of family breakdown in Aboriginal communities due to the fragmentation of traditional structures, cultural disconnection and social isolation
  • Lack of access to appropriate services due to remote location, history of strained and conflicted relationships with services, or services that aren't Aboriginal specific or sensitive in their service delivery
  • The experience of intergenerational and historic trauma that continues with the ongoing experience of grief from being removed from families, traditional lands and culture
  • The ongoing effects of colonisation and assimilation on Aboriginal people that have resulted in negative outcomes in health, housing, employment and education.

In NSW there's been a 48% increase in Aboriginal people incarcerated over the last 10 years. Yet this increase does not correlate with an increase in offending behaviour. Evidence suggests the reason for the growth is an increased severity in the criminal justice system's treatment of Aboriginal offenders. Compared with non-Indigenous offenders, Aboriginal people are refused bail more often, are detained for longer periods on remand, receive prison sentences more often, and are being sentenced for longer (Fitzgerald 2009).

"Indigenous offenders with an existing substance use, mental health, or physical health problem often have complex needs. Separation from family and culture, together with a previous history of an undiagnosed or unrelated health condition, places an indigenous offender at great risk while in the correctional system." (NIDAC 2013:2)

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Find out more

For more information about criminal justice clients see www.nobars.org.au.

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