Did you know?

The custody rate of young Indigenous people is 28 times higher than non-Indigenous

6 Reasons

Don Weatherburn, the Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research since 1998, has spent many years researching this issue, and in 2014 published Arresting Incarceration: Pathways out of Indigenous Imprisonment.

Arresting Incarceration is a comprehensive summary of the complex reasons why Australia is incarcerating so many Indigenous people, and offers that change can only come from all levels of government, together with communities, implementing a reform strategy that involves all agencies working in the following areas: Justice; Liquor licensing; Public health; Education; Employment; Crime prevention; Law enforcement; and Housing.

Big hART would also add arts and culture to the list for the impact such programs can have on reducing recidivism and diverting young people from crime.


In addition, Weatherburn personalises the issue for each and every one of us by offering six reasons why all Australians need to care about high Indigenous incarceration rates:

  • It is the right thing to do – we owe it to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia to reduce the rates in which they are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned
  • High incarceration rates indicate that prison is no longer a deterrent to crime
  • It affects social capacity (such as employability), which leads to more crime, and affects the next generation
  • It contributes significantly to Indigenous economic and social disadvantage
  • Its expensive
  • The adverse publicity this statistic attracts generates negative publicity about Australia abroad that could affect our international interests and reputation

Arresting Incarceration is available to purchase through the AIATSIS Shop.

“Every time you put someone in jail, you’re not punishing one person, you’re destroying that person’s connection to family, you’re weakening the community, you’re weakening the family structure, the community structure, and you are creating this incredible gulag of non-violent offenders that I think is a drain on the soul, on our spirit and ultimately you are wasting a lot of treasure.”

David Simon, Creator of HBO’s The Wire and Treme


Every second young person in detention in Australia is Indigenous (51%1). The human impact of this confronting statistic is the destruction of families, the weakening of communities and the inadvertent creation of a training ground for young offenders.

However this is not merely a statistic, it paints a darker picture of shambolic policy at both a State and Federal level, where politicians on both sides have used ‘Law and Order’ to get elected, upping the rhetoric year by year, and effectively tying the hands of the judiciary.

This Campaign came about from Big hART’s work in the town of Roebourne in WA, where 31 years ago, 16 year old John Pat passed away in a police cell. The aftermath of the tragedy triggered the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which handed down 339 recommendations in 1991, the most important of which was that the rate at which Indigenous Australians were coming into contact with the justice system was far too high and needed to be addressed. This was a lost opportunity to make a difference and 23 years on we have more Indigenous Australians in detention than ever, and more Indigenous juveniles locked up than any other Western country.

This Campaign is interested in creative ways to raise awareness regarding this issue and how we all have a responsibility to help make it possible for politicians to act. Although there are no easy answers, one key message coming out of the Roebourne community is that we have to tackle this issue maragutharra – ‘together’ – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, young and old, men and women, policy experts and community.

As a positive legacy to John’s passing, for the last four years acclaimed arts and social change organisation Big hART has been working with the Pat family and members of the Roebourne community, to tell John’s story positively and through theatre (Hipbone Sticking Out) and music (the Murru album and concert) so as to draw attention to this high-incarceration statistic.

1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2013. Youth detention population in Australia 2013. Juvenile Justice Series no. 13. Cat. no. JUV 31. Canberra: AIHW