Factors Affecting Crime Rates in Six Rural Indigenous Communities

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The Routledge International Handbook of Rural Criminology, 2016, pp. 33 - 44
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The dramatic, and increasing, overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in all stages of the criminal justice system is a national crisis and mandates that crime and Indigenous communities is properly a subject for intense focus and debate. Despite the extensive findings and recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (Johnston 1991), Indigenous incarceration rates continue to rise—both nationally and across the states and territories, for both adult and juvenile detention populations. During the last 15 years, the imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased by 57.4 per cent, so that Indigenous adults are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people (Productivity Commission 2014). Indigenous youth are 26 times more likely to be in detention (Amnesty International 2015). Many criminological theories as to causes of Indigenous overrepresentation in the criminal justice system have been posited. In particular, it has been suggested that social disorganisation theory and conflict theory are relevant to understanding crime places-based variations in crime rates variations. Hence, both can be applied to rural and remote communities, and to Indigenous communities in terms of the breakdown of Indigenous informal social controls as a result of colonisation and dispossession. However, appraisals of these theories in rural Australia have demonstrated that, while combinations of some elements might be illuminating, no one theory was able to fully capture the complexity of ‘crime’ as a localised phenomenon at a community level (Hunter 1993, Jobes, Donnermeyer and Barclay 2005, and McCausland and Vivian 2010). There is growing recognition of the Eurocentric focus in criminological studies and the importance in moving towards a post-colonial criminology (Cunneen 2011; Cunneen and Rowe 2014). Indeed, the foundations of criminology lie in the writings of Enlightenment scholars such as Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham and, at least historically, criminology as a discipline has not always raised questions or developed theoretical frameworks that are necessarily fitting when applied to Indigenous criminal justice issues. The work of radical and critical criminology has raised concerns about the appositeness of criminological theories to Indigenous contexts (Cunneen 2001; Blagg 2008a; Blagg 2008b). Harry Blagg, for example, questions the applicability of criminological theories that predominantly emerge from large cities in the United States essentially shaped by circumstances that are the antithesis of those experienced by Indigenous peoples (Blagg 2008b). That is, the immigrant experience of diaspora and adaption: learning new languages, cultures, values and political processes, versus withstanding the imposition of foreign laws, institutions, peoples, economies and beliefs, while maintaining Aboriginality and distinct identity in their own country (Blagg 2008b). However some criminologists have raised concerns about the cultural baggage of even the most ‘critical’ schools within criminology—including radical criminology and critical criminology—when applied to Indigenous issues (Cunneen 2011; Cunneen and Rowe 2014). Aboriginal Australia is made up of hundreds of nations, each with its unique culture, language, history, laws and customs. Just as Indigenous communities are diverse, so too is there considerable variation in rates of offending and victimisation in Indigenous communities across NSW and Australia. With this variation as its genesis, this chapter outlines research undertaken by Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney (‘Jumbunna’) that sought to understand factors affecting crime rates in the six rural Indigenous communities based on observations and interviews. Crime rates and offending patterns, we contend, cannot be reduced to individuals’ propensity to commit a crime alone, but reflect a combination of a complex set of social factors that are contingent on local context. The purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of the diverse set of issues affecting crime rates in Indigenous communities, with a particular focus on six communities in rural New South Wales.
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