People in contact with the criminal justice system

The criminal justice system comprises 3 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.

Police

Illicit drug offences (77,074 offenders) and acts intended to cause injury (78,530 offenders) represented the most common principal offences nationally in 2018–19. The number of illicit drug offenders decreased by 1% (710 offenders) between 2017–18 and 2018–19 (ABS 2020b). The majority (68%) of illicit drug offenders were charged with the principal offence of possess and/or use illicit drugs (ABS 2020b).

Courts

Data from Criminal Courts, Australia for 2018–19 showed that offences for most defendants are finalised in the magistrate’s courts (91.4% or 526,716 defendants) and of these: 

  • Illicit drug offences accounted for 10.7% (or 56,500 defendants), of which 63.4% (35,809 defendants) were possess and/or use illicit drugs. Males accounted for 74.9% (42,326) of defendants with a primary offence of illicit drugs finalised in the Magistrates’ Courts.
  • Of defendants proven guilty in the magistrates court for a principal offence of illicit drug offences, 7.1% were given a custodial sentence, but the majority (60.6% or 29,519 defendants) were sentenced to fines (ABS 2020a) (Table S3.55).
  • Between 2016–17 and 2017–18, illicit drug offences decreased by 3.4% (1,976), the first decrease since 2010–11. In 2018–19, illicit drug offences decreased further by 0.2% (138). Some of the decrease may be the result of ‘lower level’ offences (such as minor drug possession) being diverted from the courts (ABS 2020a).

Corrective services

A snapshot of the adult (aged 18 and over) prison population at 30 June 2019 showed that there were 43,028 prisoners in Australia. This represents 219 prisoners per 100,000 population and is a 1% decrease from 2018 (ABS 2019).

Young people under youth justice supervision

On an average day in 2018–19, 5,694 young people aged 10 and over were under youth justice supervision. Most (4,767 or 84%) young people under supervision were supervised in the community, and almost 1 in 5 (17% or 956) were in detention (some were supervised in both the community and detention on the same day). A total of 10,820 young people were supervised at some time during the year (AIHW 2020c).

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 (AIHW 2018).

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 (IGCD 2012). Recently, there have been a range of smoking bans introduced in Australian prisons and most correctional facilities are now smoke-free (DoH 2016).

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 2018:

  • About three-quarters (75%) of prison entrants currently smoked tobacco.
  • Tasmania had the highest proportion of current smokers (90%), followed by South Australia (83%). Queensland (68%) had the lowest proportion.
  • More than two-thirds (67%) of prison entrants smoked tobacco daily (Figure CRIM1).
  • The average age a prisoner smoked their first full cigarette was 14.1 years (AIHW 2019).

In the general population, findings from the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) showed that of people aged 14 and over:

  • 11.0% smoked on a daily basis
  • 14.0% were current smokers
  • the average age of their first full cigarette was 16.6 years (AIHW 2020b).

Figure CRIM1: Smoking status, prison entrants and the general population, 2018 and 2019 (per cent)

The figure shows that 75% of prison entrants reported being a current smoker in 2018, and 67% reported being a daily smoker. These are higher proportions than for the general population, where 14.0% of people were current smokers and 11.0% were daily smokers in 2019. Conversely, prison entrants were less likely than the general population to be ex-smokers (10.0% compared with 22.8%) or never smokers (13.0% compared with 63.1%).

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Alcohol consumption

The risky consumption of alcohol has been found to be strongly associated with adverse outcomes including criminal offending (Fergusson, Boden & Horwood 2013).

The Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) program is an ongoing illicit drug use monitoring program that captures information on police detainees. Alcohol consumption was common among police detainees, with data from 2019 showing that 31% of police detainees reported consuming alcohol in the 48 hours prior to their detention. Police detainees consumed a median of 9 (mean=15) standard drinks before their arrest (Voce & Sullivan 2019). Almost 1 in 6 (16%) of police detainees reported that alcohol contributed to their most recent police detention (Doherty & Sullivan 2020).

Prison entrants in 2018 were more likely than the general population to be non-drinkers, however those that did drink were more likely to drink at high risk levels than people in the general community (refer to Box CRIM1 for information on how alcohol related harm is calculated for prison entrants). Specifically:

  • Prison entrants aged 25–44 years were twice as likely to consume alcohol in greater quantities that those the same age in the general community (e.g. 7 or more standard drinks on a usual day of drinking) (AIHW 2019).
  • During the 12 months prior to prison, 34% of prison entrants consumed alcohol at levels that placed them at high risk of alcohol-related harm (AIHW 2019).

Prison entrants in the Northern Territory (60%) and Tasmania (40%) were the most likely to be at high-risk of alcohol-related harm, while those in South Australia (58%) and Queensland (35%) were the most likely to report that they do not drink (AIHW 2019) (Table S3.57).

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 (AIHW 2019).

Illicit drugs

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 (Kopak & Hoffman 2014).

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) collects national illicit drug arrest data annually from federal, state and territory police services to inform the Illicit Drug Data Report (IDDR). According to the 2018–19 IDDR, there were 153,377 national illicit drug arrests in 2018–19, a slight increase from 148,363 arrests in 2017–18. The number of national illicit drug arrests has increased 80% over the last decade (from 85,252 arrests in 2009–10) (ACIC 2020). Most (90.0%) of the national illicit drug arrests in 2018–19 were for consumer related offences, with the remainder related to provider (supply-type) offences (Figure CRIM2).

Figure CRIM2: Consumer, provider and total national illicit drug arrests 2009–10 to 2018–19

The figure shows that 90.0% of the national illicit drug arrests in 2018–19 were for consumer related offences, with the remainder related to provider offences. In 2018–19, most consumer (64,848) and provider (5,945) national illicit drug arrests were for cannabis.

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Information related to criminal activity and contact with the criminal justice system is collected as part of the Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) for people who regularly use ecstasy or other stimulants and the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) for people who regularly inject drugs.

Of the 2020 EDRS participants:

  • 8% had been arrested in the past year
  • the most common crimes reported in the last month included drug dealing (20%) and property crime (15%)
  • a minor proportion (3%) of the sample reported a lifetime prison history (Peacock et al. 2020a) (Table S1.18)
  • collection of crime data in 2020 took place during the COVID-19 restriction period between April and July 2020. Data that relate to the previous 6–12 months will reflect behaviours both pre and during the COVID-19 period.

Of the 2019 IDRS participants:

  • 34% reported having been arrested in the 12 months preceding interview, while more than half (62%) reported a lifetime prison history.The most common crimes reported in the last month included property crime (28%) and drug dealing (24%) (Peacock et al. 2019b; Table S1.19).

Data from the 2019 DUMA program (Doherty & Sullivan 2020; Table 3.59) indicate that:

  • over three-quarters (78%) of police detainees who provided a urine sample tested positive for at least one drug type and 44% tested positive to multiple drugs
  • 1 in 3 (33%) police detainees interviewed stated that their illicit drug use contributed to their offending
  • the highest proportion of detainees tested positive to methamphetamine (51%) followed by cannabis (45%).

Cannabis

Data from the 2018–19 IDDR found that:

  • there were 71,151 national cannabis arrests in 2018–19, with the number of arrests increasing 24% over the last decade (57,170 in 2009–10)
  • cannabis (46%) accounted for the greatest proportion of national illicit drug arrests in 2018–19 and most of these arrests (91%) were consumer arrests
  • while cannabis continues to account for the greatest proportion of national illicit drug arrests, this proportion has decreased over the last decade (down from 67.1% in 2009–10) (ACIC 2020; Table S1.20).

Data from the 2019 DUMA found that:

  • the proportion of police detainees testing positive to cannabis was relatively stable between 2018 and 2019 (47% and 45% respectively) (Voce & Sullivan 2019; Doherty & Sullivan 2020)
  • among those detainees whose most serious offence was violent, 46% tested positive for cannabis in 2019 (Doherty & Sullivan 2020).

Methamphetamines and other stimulants

Data from the 2018–19 IDDR found that:

  • amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) accounted for the second largest proportion (30.3%) of national illicit drug arrests in 2018–19 
  • the proportion of arrests attributed to ATS has increased over the last decade (from 16.4% in 2009–10) (ACIC 2020; Table S1.20)
  • the number of national cocaine arrests has increased 303% over the last decade, from 1,244 in 2009–10 to a record 5,016 in 2018–19 (ACIC 2020; Table S1.20).

Data from the 2019 DUMA found that:

  • 52% of police detainees tested positive to amphetamine-type stimulants. Of the detainees testing positive for any amphetamine, the majority (98%) tested positive for methamphetamine
  • the proportion of detainees testing positive to methamphetamine remained stable between 2018 (52%) and 2019 (51%)
  • the majority of detainees whose most serious offence was property related tested positive to amphetamine-type stimulants (64%) in 2019, as did most drug (59%) and traffic offenders (48%)
  • 1% of police detainees tested positive to MDMA in 2019, equal to the proportion reported in 2017 and 2018. Since DUMA commenced in 1999, the number of detainees testing positive to MDMA has remained low—under 3%
  • the proportion of police detainees testing positive to cocaine has remained stable at 2% in 2017, 2018 and 2019 (Patterson et al. 2018; Voce & Sullivan 2019; Doherty & Sullivan 2020).

Opioids, including heroin

Data from the 2018–19 IDDR found that:

  • heroin and other opioids accounted for 2.0% of national illicit drug arrests in 2018–19 
  • the proportion of arrests attributed to heroin and other opioids has decreased over the last decade (from 3.2% in 2009–10) (ACIC 2020; Table S1.20).

Data from the DUMA found that:

  • in 2019, 19% of police detainees tested positive to opioids, including heroin, methadone, buprenorphine, prescription and other opioids , an increase from 14% in 2018
  • the proportion of detainees testing positive to heroin increased from 5% in 2018 to 6% in 2019
  • data from the DUMA program are unable to specify the proportions of non-medical use of pharmaceuticals, yet showed a stable proportion of detainees tested positive to benzodiazepines in 2018 (23%) and 2019 (24%) (Voce & Sullivan 2019; Doherty & Sullivan 2020).

The Health of Australia’s Prisoners 2018 reports that overall, two-thirds (65%) of prison entrants reported using illicit drugs in the 12 months before incarceration, with the most common drug being methamphetamine (43%) followed by cannabis (40%). The Australian Capital Territory (89%) and Tasmania (86%) have the highest rates of illicit drug use for prison entrants, while South Australia (58%) and the Northern Territory (40%) had the lowest (AIHW 2019) (Table S3.58).

In contrast, rates of drug use among the general population were substantially lower, with 1 in 6 (16.4%) people aged 14 and over reporting the use of any illicit drug in the past 12 months (AIHW 2020b). Differences in the use of individual drug types among these groups are presented in Figure CRIM3.

Figure CRIM3: Recent drug use, police detainees, prison entrants and general population, 2018 and 2019 (per cent)

The figure shows that the use of cocaine and ecstasy/MDMA was most common among prison entrants (7% for cocaine and 5% for ecstasy), but was more common among the general population (4.2% for cocaine and 3% for ecstasy) than police detainees (1% for cocaine and 1% for ecstasy). Cannabis was most common among police detainees (46%).

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Health and harms

The NPHDC includes a number of indicators regarding prisoner health and harms. In 2018:

  • 40% of prison entrants had ever been told they have a mental health disorder (including drug and alcohol abuse).
  • 10% of prison entrants experienced ‘a lot’ of distress due to alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, while 17% experienced ‘a little’ (AIHW 2019).

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 (Kopak & Hoffman 2014 as cited in AIHW 2015). Less than 1 in 10 (8%) prison dischargees reported using a needle and syringe that had been used by someone else, while in prison (AIHW 2019).

Treatment

In terms of treatment, referral episodes from police or court diversion programs accounted for 12.5% of treatment episodes for clients receiving treatment for their own drug use in 2018–19 (AIHW 2020a). The NPHDC also found that opioid substitution treatment (OST) was currently being undertaken by 7% of prison entrants and 7% of prison dischargees. Around 1 in 7 (13%) prison entrants reported ever having been on an OST (AIHW 2019).