Indigenous Law Bulletin
Crime data published by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research
(‘BOCSAR’) indicates that there is considerable
variation in rates
of Indigenous offending from one area to another in NSW, including in areas with
comparable Indigenous populations.
There is, however, a dearth of research that explains why this may be the case.
Studies have explored factors underpinning Indigenous
overrepresentation in the
criminal justice system and factors
associated with individual Indigenous offenders’ involvement in
crime, but there has been little
investigation of the effect of the dynamics of Indigenous communities on crime.
This article reports on a 2008 pilot study by Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, in collaboration with BOCSAR, that seeks to explore factors that may affect crime rates in two towns in western NSW, Wilcannia and Menindee. Both have significant Aboriginal populations and are demographically and geographically comparable, yet the data reports contrasting crime rates. The research team was particularly interested in identifying possible characteristics or strategies that may have a positive impact on crime rates.
As part of the study, we engaged key community and organisational representatives working in relevant criminal justice and service delivery roles. We sought to gain an understanding of the dynamics and experiences of the community as a whole, rather than focusing on specific individuals who had been victims or perpetrators of crime.
Wilcannia and Menindee: A Statistical Breakdown
Wilcannia and Menindee are towns within the Central Darling Shire in western New South Wales. In the 2006 census, Wilcannia and Menindee were recorded as having populations of 595 and 332 respectively. Both communities have significant Aboriginal populations: 67.4% of the total population surveyed identified as Aboriginal in Wilcannia, while 46.7% did so in Menindee. The nearest major centre to both communities is Broken Hill, with a population of 18,854 of which 6.4% are Aboriginal people. Wilcannia is approximately twice the distance from Broken Hill (approximately 200km) than Menindee (approximately 110km). Wilcannia and Menindee are both within the traditional lands of the Barkindji people. With a major history of forced removal onto missions, Wilcannia is today considered the cultural home of the Barkindji, while people identifying as both Barkindji and/or Nyampa live in Menindee. Historically and today, Wilcannia is a largely segregated town, with the majority of the Aboriginal population living on the outskirts of town. Menindee is known as a more integrated town with a significant degree of intermarriage.
Local Court data from the period April 2007-March 2008 reveals the following recorded crime rates:
Domestic Violence Related Assault
• Broken Hill: 7.7 per 1000
• Wilcannia: 93.5 per 1000
• Menindee: 20.6 per 1000
Non-Domestic Violence Related Assault
• Broken Hill: 10.2 per 1000
• Wilcannia: 47.4 per 1000
• Menindee: 12.7 per 1000
Break and Enter
• Broken Hill: 16.3 per 1000
• Wilcannia: 25 per 1000
• Menindee: 6.3 per 1000
Malicious Ddamage to Property
• Broken Hill: 30.7 per 1000
• Wilcannia: 58.0 per 1000
• Menindee: 20.6 per 1000
The high rate of violent crime in Wilcannia was commonly attributed to dangerous levels of alcohol use amongst some community members. This was generally followed by a discussion as to reasons for such dangerous levels, highlighting mental health issues, trauma and grief. Interviewees stressed the lack of appropriate and local rehabilitation services. Violent crime was described as occurring within friendships, families and relationships; the particular issue of violence against women was referred to as endemic and devastating. Restrictions on the trading of alcohol and alcohol free zones, while generally accepted as having reduced public violence, were not considered effective in reducing alcohol consumption. Instead, they were alleged to encourage binge drinking and push alcoholism and violence into people’s homes.
With a life expectancy of 36.7 years for Aboriginal men and 42.5 years for women, regular funerals in the town were identified as flashpoints for alcohol related crime and violence. An acceptance of criminal behaviour was considered both a result and contributor to Wilcannia’s high crime levels.
Wilcannia has twelve police stationed in the town; many people questioned the extent to which this large police presence contributes to high crime rates. The policing approach in the town was widely considered to have improved over recent years. However, concerns were raised that police/community relationships seemed largely to depend on individual police, who have a high turnover and are often inexperienced in working with Indigenous communities. A number of interviewees also questioned the appropriateness of the broad ‘welfare’ role often adopted by police in the absence of other locally-based services. The extent to which fines are issued to people who cannot afford to pay, and subsequent ramifications, was also raised a number of times.
Numerous people identified the lack of meaningful employment opportunities, or a sense of purpose, as relevant to high crime rates. One specific compounding factor referred to was that of the impact of a criminal record on future employment opportunities. The very high costs of living in Wilcannia were also criticised, as were health, poor quality housing and overcrowding, all of which were identified as requiring urgent attention. Inadequate, flawed housing projects that have failed over decades to produce positive outcomes were frequently reported. Many interviewees were of the view that positive family, school and community expectations were pivotal to preventing young people from becoming involved in crime.
Interviewees invariably raised the absence of co-ordinated, long-term planning or service delivery by government, the serious lack of consultation with, and accountability to, the community, and the significant financial resources allocated to the town but with little to show for it. Wilcannia was frequently described as a town run by ‘remote control’, with increasing regionalisation of services and a blanket approach by government agencies. This was despite an obvious need for community based, locally targeted solutions to the problems in the town.
The lower recorded crime rates for Menindee were supported by descriptions of the community as generally law-abiding, cohesive and focused on solving problems locally. People referred to Menindee as a town with an active involvement in crime prevention and a good working relationship with the police; the Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer (‘ACLO’) was noted as a key community figure.  One of the strongest emerging themes was the importance of informal social controls on lower crime rates. Examples were given of community mobilisation to deal with emerging problems, particularly in relation to antisocial behaviour by young people. One prominent group of women was regularly identified as central to the dynamics and functioning of the community.
Greater employment prospects were one of the first factors that people identified as influencing a lower crime rate. Employment opportunities related to the local horticulture, pastoral and tourism industries as well as the closer proximity to Broken Hill. However, some interviewees identified the continuing challenge of racism in accessing employment. Others questioned the assumption that greater employment prospects led to a more functional community, citing urban areas where greater employment opportunity does not necessarily correlate with lesser crime.
The strong relationship between the school and the Aboriginal community was identified as central. Interviewees stressed the importance of their active, experienced school principal, who is committed to working in partnership with the community. There was reportedly an important sense of community input into the school direction and approach, and respect for Aboriginal staff and content. Traineeships with local businesses and agencies for students in their later years of school were seen as an important bridge to employment. While many interviewees identified ongoing challenges facing the school, there was a sense of commitment to creating a functional, nurturing environment that helps to provide a future for Aboriginal students. Parental and community expectation presented as important factors in encouraging ambition and a sense of purpose in young people.
Despite a prevailing sense that the situation was better in Menindee, some interviewees alleged significant under-reporting of crime, particularly in relation to domestic violence and sexual assault. There are only two police based in the town and 000 calls go through to Broken Hill; some interviewees believed that, for this reason, local police did not have an accurate understanding of crime in the town. Menindee was also described as a community that resolves its own problems, that is, without formally invoking criminal justice system. Attempts to resolve issues internally – especially in relation to young people – were expressed as both a strength and as problematic.
Interviewees regularly referred to the lack of government services and programs in Menindee, in both positive and negative terms. People living and working in Menindee said that the community experienced many of the same challenges as Wilcannia but, because of a general perception that Menindee was not a ‘problem community’ in the same way, insufficient attention was paid to their needs. Others felt that one reason Menindee fared better was partly attributable to a lack of government interference in the way the community functions. Menindee was frequently described as a community that finds its own solutions to problems. Notwithstanding some divisions, particularly between people identifying as Nyampa or Barkindji, Menindee was generally depicted as an integrated, cohesive community working together to create a positive future for the town.
Ideas for Reducing Crime
Interviewees in this pilot study had a range of ideas about community characteristics or preventative strategies to lower crime rates. There were extensive recommendations regarding alcohol and mental health issues, government policy and priorities, policing, employment, school and community dynamics. Importantly, a widespread lack of understanding of criminal justice processes was listed as relevant to erratic court attendance or failures to comply with court orders. Interviewees from both communities discussed the need for better support and information, stressing the crucial role of ACLOs in this regard.
Two specific issues emerged as particularly relevant to the cycle of
over-representation, namely fines and infringement notices, and
the lack of
appropriate diversionary options in regional
Fines and Infringement Notices
The cascading impact and disproportionate effect of fines and infringement notices for people without capacity to pay is well documented. People who are already disadvantaged are more vulnerable to being ﬁned and are more likely to accrue multiple infringement notices; unpaid fines often accumulate into major debt from ongoing penalties. Drivers’ licenses and car registrations are frequently affected, often without the person’s knowledge. This was relayed as a particular concern; the reality of a subsequent criminal record and incarceration for unlicensed driving was evident.
Under a two-year trial, introduced earlier this year, disadvantaged people in NSW may apply for a ‘Work and Development Order’ (‘WDO’) in place of a ﬁne and, in some instances, outstanding ﬁnes may be partially written off. The scheme also provides for more flexible payment options and police guidelines about the appropriateness of official cautions. WDOs are available to a person who has an intellectual disability, mental illness or cognitive impairment, is homeless or is experiencing acute economic hardship. The application must be supported by an ‘approved organisation’ or, in the case of mental health or medical treatment, by a qualified health practitioner. Such an order could require a person to undertake voluntary work for approved charities, to complete educational, vocational or life skills courses, to agree to counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, or to participate in a mentoring program if the person is under the age of 25.
Whilst a welcome measure, the potential benefits of this trial may not extend
to regional towns such as Wilcannia and Menindee, where
there is a lack of
approved organisations able to supervise the orders. Both communities repeatedly
stressed the absence of appropriate
local services; services are primarily
provided by organisations based in Broken Hill and on an infrequent basis. Given
of existing services, the responsibility of monitoring WDOs is
potentially too onerous a burden on local police. However such a measure,
properly implemented, could make a significant difference to crime rates,
particularly in addressing the common challenge of snowballing
Lack of Diversionary Options
Interviewees who worked in the criminal justice system identified the lack of available and appropriate options – both in prevention and diversion in sentencing – as a serious shortcoming in both communities, particularly Wilcannia. Even where alternative options were available, their existence was described as fragile. In previous years, magistrates could refer offenders to a drivers’ license program that also provided literacy, numeracy, drug and alcohol education but this is no longer funded. The program was seen to contribute to lowering crime rates in two main ways. On a practical level, it assisted participants to obtain their drivers’ license, a precondition for employment in regional areas with little public transport. But the program also offered magistrates an alternative to disqualification in an area where driving offences are particularly common. It also bolstered a relationship with the State Debt Recovery Office because those who had lost their license could apply to have them reinstated while they paid their fines.
Generally in regional communities, magistrates are limited in their sentencing options. As diversionary programs are largely unavailable, incarceration becomes the more likely outcome. Wilcannia has a large transient population and ill-adapted responses by the criminal justice system tend to intensify this mobility. Bail options, for example, generally do not properly recognise the circumstances of many Aboriginal families. Young offenders might be cared for by several people, moving from home to home. In this context, designating one specific bail address is not practical. Similarly, violent disputes may be addressed by court orders that require individuals to leave town; people sentenced to imprisonment, or ordered to receive treatment for alcohol addiction may be dealt with in the same way. This can have wide-scale impacts on community disadvantage: families often follow relatives when they travel out of town, staying with other relatives or friends. In practical terms, this further aggravates household overcrowding and prevents children from attending school.
Despite these known circumstances, and the consequences of conventional sentencing options, the only treatment program referred to by interviewees was the three month Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment (‘MERIT’) program based in Broken Hill. MERIT provides an opportunity for people charged with minor offences to be referred by police, solicitors, magistrates or by the individuals themselves for drug and alcohol treatment. However, even this program is deficient as it is not available to violent offenders who constitute a large proportion offenders, particularly in Wilcannia.
This short pilot study indicates a complex array of intersecting factors that contribute to uneven crime rates in Wilcannia and Menindee. Community-led initiatives addressing broad social, cultural and economic aspirations were most frequently identified as necessary to reinforce the positive community dynamics that prevent crime. At the other end of spectrum, once the criminal justice system is engaged, the pilot study underscores the importance of diversionary programs and flexible sentencing options that respond to needs specific to regional communities.
These findings may be unique to Wilcannia and Menindee or may be more broadly resonant; further investigation in other NSW communities with significant Aboriginal populations will be undertaken to better inform future policy and program development.
Ruth McCausland and Alison Vivian are both Senior Researchers at the Jumbunna Indigenous
House of Learning,University of Technology Sydney. The findings and full report can be found at <http://www.jumbunna.uts.edu.au/research/communityreport.html> .
 See Productivity Commission Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators (2009), 4.139.
 NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics
and Research, NSW Recorded Crime Statistics 2005
 Chris Cunneen, ‘Crime, Justice and Indigenous People’ in Elaine Barclay, Joseph F Donnermeyer, John Scott, and Russell Hogg, (eds) Crime in Rural Australia, (2007).
 Don Weatherburn, Lucy Snowball, and Boyd Hunter, 'The Economic and Social Factors Underpinning Indigenous Contact with the Justice System: Results from the 2002 NATSISS Survey', (2006) Crime and Justice Bulletin, 104.
 For greater detail about the methodology and findings of the pilot study, please refer to Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, Factors Affecting Crime Rates in Indigenous Communities in NSW: A Pilot Study in Wilcannia and Menindee,(‘Factors Affecting Crime Rates’) available at <http://www.jumbunna.uts.edu.au/research/communityreport.html> .
 Rates calculated per 1000 population for each postcode. Caution should be used when comparing rates when incident numbers or populations are small, since large percentage change in rates between periods will result from small changes in incident or population counts. For the rate calculations, population data was obtained from the ABS 2006 Census. The figures from Broken Hill are included as a reference point. The pilot study did not have the scope to investigate the changes in crime rates or population in the two communities over time.
 Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, above n 5, 9 – 12.
 Wilcannia Community Working Party, Community Action Plan, (September 2005).
 Op cit, 9.
 Ibid, 19-20.
 Ibid, 23–24.
 Ibid 27.
 Ibid 13-16.
 Ibid, 20-21.
 Ibid 21.
 Ibid 27, see also Lee-Anne Drewery, Remote Control Communities: Final Report (2009).
 Ibid 27-8.
 Ibid 40-41.
 Ibid 46-7.
 Ibid 41-2.
 Ibid 42-3.
 Ibid 45-6.
 Ibid 47-8.
 For greater detail about these recommendations, please refer to Factors Affecting Crime Rates in Indigenous Communities, above, n 5.
 Op cit, 25-6.
 See for example, Sophie Clarke, Suzie Forell, and Emily McCarron, `Fine but Not Fair: Fines and Disadvantage`, (2008) Justice Issues Paper 3, <http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/app/ & id=C25396B2605834AFCA257571000D03F7> .
 NSW Attorney-General, ‘Disadvantaged People to Work Off Their Fines’, (Press Release, 26 November 2008).
Fines Further Amendment Act 2008 (NSW), s99B.
 Ibid, s 99A.
 Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, above n 5, 26-7.
 Ibid 26.