Most mainstream prison diversion programs not meeting the needs of Indigenous offenders

The benefits of programs aimed at diverting offenders from the criminal justice system vary significantly for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, according to a new paper released today on the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse website.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are vastly over-represented in the Australian juvenile and criminal justice systems. Despite Indigenous Australians making up 3% of the total population, more than 1 in 4 Australians in prison are Indigenous, and the Indigenous imprisonment rate is 15 times that of non-Indigenous Australians.

Repeat offending and re-incarceration is a large contributor to this high rate of imprisonment.

Evidence shows that contact with and progression through the justice system can be reduced through diversionary programs.

The paper, Diverting Indigenous offenders from the criminal justice system, shows Indigenous Australians have lower participation and completion rates of diversion programs, particularly mainstream programs, compared with non-Indigenous Australians.

It shows several factors act as barriers to Indigenous defenders accessing mainstream diversionary programs, such as:

  • strict eligibility criteria (including the requirement of no previous offending);
  • preparedness to admit guilt;
  • inadequate understanding of the legal system and its diversionary processes;
  • refusal of bail, therefore making them ineligible;
  • difficulty accessing programs, due to remoteness, limited legal support or cultural issues.

Most mainstream rehabilitation programs also tend to focus on illicit drugs when alcohol abuse, rather than illicit substance abuse, is the major underlying problem for Indigenous offenders.

Indigenous-specific programs have reported better participation and completion rates, although effectiveness in reducing recidivism has not been unequivocally demonstrated.

It appears that unless factors that reduce the contact of Indigenous people with the criminal justice system are dealt with, their rates of incarceration are likely to remain high.

The Closing the Gap Clearinghouse ( is jointly funded by all Australian governments and provides an online source of information on what works to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage. It is delivered by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) and the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS).


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