People in contact with the criminal justice system

Key findings

  • The consumption of alcohol and other drugs remains more prevalent among people in contact with the criminal justice system than the general population.
  • In 2015, more than two-thirds (69%) of prison entrants smoked tobacco daily.
  • In 2015–16, one-in three (32%) of police detainees indicated that illicit drug use contributed to their offending.
  • Two-thirds (67%) of prison entrants in 2015 reported using illicit drugs in the 12 months before incarceration.
  • Three-quarters (75%) of police detainees who provided a urine sample in 2015-16 tested positive for a least one drug type.

The criminal justice system is comprised of three parts, the police (investigative element), courts (adjudicative element) and correctional services (corrective element). Information on alcohol and other drug use from each section of the criminal justice system is presented below.


In 2015–16, there were more than 422,000 alleged offenders aged 10 and over that were proceeded against by the police in Australia [1]. Illicit drug offenders represented the most common principal offence nationally (20% of all offences or 83,160 offenders), an increase of 3% of offenders compared to 2014–15. The majority (67%) of these offenders were charged with the principal offence of possess and/or use illicit drugs [1].


Data from Criminal Courts, Australia for 2016–17 showed that offences for most defendants are finalised in the magistrate’s courts (92%) and of these:

  • Illicit drug offences accounted for 11% (or 65,009 defendants), of which 58% (37,936 defendants) were possess and/or use illicit drugs with no difference for male and female offenders.
  • Of defendants proven guilty in the magistrates court for a principal offence of illicit drug offences 7% are given a custodial sentence, with the majority (65%) given monetary orders (for example, a fine) [2] (Table S3.57).

Corrective services

A snapshot of the adult (aged 18 and over) prison population at 30 June 2017 showed that there were more than 41,000 Australians in prison. This represents 216 prisoners per 100,000 population and is 4% increase from 2016 [3].

Young people under youth justice supervision

On an average day in 2016–17, 5,359 young people aged 10 and over were under youth justice supervision. Most (4,473 or 83%) young people under supervision were supervised in the community, and the remainder (913 or 17%) were in detention. A total of 10,554 young people were supervised at some time during the year [5].

Young people aged 10–17 under youth justice supervision, from 1 July 2012 to 30 June 2016, were 30 times as likely as the Australian population of the same age to receive an alcohol and other drug treatment service [6].

Tobacco smoking

The National Tobacco Strategy 2012–2018 recognises that prisoners have some of the highest levels of smoking and that smoking is common among groups that are often over-represented in the prison population [7]. Recently, there have been a range of smoking bans introduced in Australian prisons and most correctional facilities are now smoke-free [8].

Data from the National Prisoner Health Data Collection (NPHDC) showed that rates of smoking among prisoners is substantially higher than in the general community. In 2015:

  • About three-quarters (74%) of prison entrants currently smoked tobacco.
    • The ACT and Victoria had the highest proportion of current smokers (both at 84%), followed by South Australia (80%) and Tasmania (79%) while the Northern Territory (61%) and Queensland (67%) had the lowest proportion.
  • More than two-thirds (69%) of prison entrants smoked tobacco daily (Figure CRIM1).
  • The average age a prisoner smoked their first full cigarette was 14.1 years [4].

In the general population, findings from the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) showed that of people aged 14 and over:

  • 12.2% smoked on a daily basis
  • 14.9% were current smokers
  • the average age of their first full cigarette was 16.4 [9].
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Alcohol consumption

The risky consumption of alcohol has been found to be strongly associated with adverse outcomes including criminal offending [10].

Alcohol consumption was common among police detainees, with data from 2015–16 showing that 33% of police detainees reported consuming alcohol in the 48 hours prior to arrest, down from 41% in 2013–14. On the last drinking occasion, police detainees consumed an average of 19 (median 13) standard drinks [11].

Interestingly, data from the NPHDC showed that in 2015 prison entrants aged 18–49 are more likely than the general population to be non-drinkers (refer to Box CRIM1 for information on how alcohol related harm is calculated for prison entrants). However, those prison entrants that did drink alcohol indicated high levels of consumption and risk. Specifically:

  • Prison entrants were more likely to consume alcohol in greater quantities that those in the general community (e.g. 7 or more standard drinks on a usual day of drinking).
  • During the 12 months prior to prison, 39% of prison entrants consumed alcohol at levels that placed them at high risk of alcohol-related harm.

Prison entrants in the Northern Territory (72%) and Western Australia (56%) were the most likely to be at high-risk of alcohol-related harm, while those in NSW (43%) and South Australia (38%) were the most likely to report that they do not drink [4] (Table S3.59).

Box CRIM1: Calculating alcohol-related harm for prison entrants

The proportion of prison entrants who are at risk of alcohol-related harm as determined using questions on alcohol consumption from the WHO’s Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT) screening instrument. The AUDIT tool alcohol harm risk profile does not align with the NHMRC guidelines and as such the results are not comparable to the general population [4].

Illicit drug use

It is commonly understood that there is a link between the use of illicit drugs and involvement in the criminal justice system. Illicit drug use has been identified as a primary motivating factor in non-violent property offences such as burglary and theft [12].

Data from the 2015–16 DUMA program indicates that:

  • Three-quarters (75%) of police detainees who provided a urine sample tested positive for a least one drug type.
  • almost one in three (32%) police detainees interviewed stated that their illicit drug use contributed to their offending [11].

The Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) is an annual survey of regular injecting drug users across Australia. Reports of criminal activity among the national sample, showed that:

  • Two-fifths (40%) had engaged in at least one criminal activity in the preceding month.
  • Drug dealing (25%) and property crime (21%) were the most commonly reported criminal activities.
  • One-third (33%) of the national sample reported being arrested in the 12 months prior to interview, while more than half (58%) reported a lifetime prison history [11].

Overall, two-thirds (67%) of prison entrants reported using illicit drugs in the 12 months before incarceration and Victoria (81%) and Tasmania (77%) have the highest rates of illicit drug use for prison entrants, while Northern Territory (6%) and South Australia (60%) had the lowest [4] (Table S3.60).

In contrast, rates of drug use among the general population were substantially lower, with 1 in 6 (15.6%) people aged 14 and over reporting the use of any drug in the past 12 months [9]. Differences in the use of individual drug types among these groups are presented in Figure CRIM2.

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Health and harms

The NPHDC includes a number of indicators regarding prisoner health and harms. In 2015: 

  • 49% of prison entrants had ever been told they have a mental health disorder (including drug and alcohol abuse.
  • 18% of prison entrants experienced ‘a lot’ of distress due to alcohol, tobacco and other drug use [4].

Further, data from the National Prison Entrants’ Blood Borne Virus and Risk Behaviour Survey in 2013 found that almost 1 in 5 (18%) prison entrants had shared injecting drug equipment in the previous month, placing them at risk of communicable disease [12 as in 4]. Around 1 in 25 (4%) prison discharges reported using a needle and syringe that had been used by someone else, while in prison [4].


In terms of treatment, referral episodes from police or court diversion programs accounted for 17% of episodes for clients receiving treatment for their own drug use in 2016–17 [13]. The NPHDC also found that opioid substitution treatment (OST) was currently being undertaken by 7% of prison entrants and 9% of prison discharges. Around 1 in 7 (15%) prison entrants reported ever having been on an OST [4].


  1. ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2017a. Recorded crime—Offenders, 2015–16. Cat. no. 4519.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 1 February 2018.
  2. ABS 2018. Criminal courts, Australia, 2016–17. Cat. no. 4513.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 26 March 2018.
  3. ABS 2017b. Prisoners in Australia, 2017. Cat. no. 4517.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 2 February 2018.
  4. AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2015. The health of Australia’s prisoners 2015. Cat. no. PHE 207. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 2 February 2018. 
  5. AIHW 2018a. Youth justice in Australia 2016–17. Cat. no. JUV 116. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 16 October 2018.
  6. AIHW 2018b. Overlap between youth justice supervision and alcohol and other drug treatment services: 1 July 2012 to 30 June 2016. Cat. no. JUV 126. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 16 October 2018.
  7. Intergovernmental Committee on Drugs (IGCD) 2012. National Tobacco Strategy 2012-2018. Viewed 2 February 2018, <>.
  8. Department of Health 2016. Prisoners and recently released prisoners. Canberra: Australian Government. Viewed 2 February 2018, <>.
  9. AIHW 2017. National drug strategy household survey 2016: detailed findings. Drug statistics series no. 31. Cat. no. PHE 214. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 14 December 2017, <>.
  10. Fergusson DM, Boden JM & Horwood LJ 2013. Alcohol misuse and psychosocial outcomes in young adulthood. Result from a longitudinal birth cohort studied to age 30. Drug and alcohol dependence 133:513-9.
  11. Patterson, E Sullivan, T, Ticehurst, A & Bricknell, S 2018. Drug use monitoring in Australia: 2015 and 2016 report on drug use among police detainees, Statistical Reports Number 4. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. Viewed 20 April 2018 <>.
  12. Kopak AM & Hoffman NG 2014. Pathways between substance use, dependence, offense type, and offense severity. Criminal Justice Policy Review. 25(6): 743:760.
  13. Peacock A, Gibbs D, Sutherland R, Uporova J, Karlsson A, Bruno R, Dietze P, Lenton S, Alati R, Degenhardt L & Farrell M 2018. Australian Drug Trends 2018. Key findings from the National Illicit Drug Reporting System Interviews. Sydney, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Australia.
  14. Butler T, Callander D & Simpson M 2015. National prison entrants’ bloodborne virus and risk behavior survey 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2013. Sydney: Kirby Institute (UNSW Australia).
  15. AIHW 2018c. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia 2016-17. Drug treatment services no. 31. Cat. no. HSE 207. Canberra: AIHW <>