Fact Sheet: Aboriginal Offenders

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Fact sheets undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication. 
About the author: This article is part of the Undergraduate Author Series, which means that it was written by an undergraduate university student. This article was written as a guest post by Koa Hughes, a third-year psychology student at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

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Aboriginal Offenders

Aboriginal people inhabited a land from the earliest times, prior to colonizers arriving. Almost all data available relates to male offenders from Canada, the United States, and Australia. Overall, Aboriginal offenders are overrepresented within the criminal justice system. They are more likely to commit violent crimes, are classified as higher-risk and higher-need, are younger, have a lower level of education, are less likely to be employed, are more likely to have an alcohol or drug abuse problem, and have often had extensive involvement with the criminal justice system as youths. The current correctional system does not adequately deal with the needs of Aboriginal offenders, so rehabilitation rates are poor and recidivism rates are high (1).

Overrepresentation

Aboriginal people make up about 3% of the population in Canada, Australia and the United States; yet they make up 20-35% of the inmate population in correctional systems, and up to 50% of the prison population in New Zealand (2). The higher rate of incarceration for Aboriginal peoples has been linked to systemic discrimination and attitudes based on racial or cultural prejudice, as well as economic and social deprivation, substance abuse and a cycle of violence across generations (3). Some concerns related to the overrepresentation are that correctional systems classify Aboriginal offenders at higher security levels than other inmates; they are identified as having lower reintegration potential; and they are placed in segregation more often than non-Aboriginal offenders, limiting their access to appropriate programming. Unfortunately, Aboriginal inmates often do not receive timely access to rehabilitative programming and services that would help them return to their communities. The major overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in prison, combined with their differential treatment, and risk factors is a set up for continuous, long lasting problems and recidivism..

Risk factors

Existing research supports the applicability that 6 of the 8 central risk factors pertain to Aboriginal offenders, as follows:

  • history of antisocial behaviour
  • antisocial personality
  • antisocial attitudes
  • antisocial peers
  • absence of positive leisure or recreational activities
  • substance abuse

The other two typical risk factors, family/marital problems and school/employment difficulties, did not appear to be risk factors for Aboriginal offenders. There may be additional culture-related risk factors that pertain to Aboriginal offenders. For example, an extremely high percentage of Aboriginal offenders report early drug and/or alcohol use, physical abuse, parental absence or neglect, and poverty in their family backgrounds, and having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Additionally, Aboriginal offenders have often been raised as wards of the community, and many attended boarding or residential schools. Aboriginal offenders also suffer from a higher incidence of general health problems (4).

Alternative Rehabilitation

There has been significant concern among members of Aboriginal communities that current correctional programming may not yield the same positive results with Aboriginal offenders as it does with non-Aboriginal offenders. The Correctional Service of Canada has played a leading role in developing and implementing ground breaking initiatives to advance Aboriginal Corrections, all of which have proven to be beneficial. The CSC stated that Aboriginal-specific programs must be implemented, replacing regular existing initiatives or in addition to existing programs (5). In Australia, traditional forms of punishment have been taken into consideration when recommended for an Aboriginal offender, such as shaming and exile; further, communities implemented traditional punishments for the offender (2). Given the high rates of alcohol misuse, family violence and unemployment amongst Aboriginal offenders, many countries suggest that these need areas should be specifically addressed in anger or violence programs (6). Alternative approaches are presently directed at reducing the number of Aboriginal people involved in the criminal justice system, and reducing the level of recidivism (7).

Conclusion

Aboriginal offenders are highly overrepresented within the correctional system. Most Aboriginal offenders face many historical and current disadvantages that increase their risk factors for criminal behaviour, so it is necessary to find an appropriate response to prevention, rehabilitation and recidivism reduction, all within a culturally appropriate way. It is necessary to create a representative judicial system, cross-cultural education for those involved in the system, and alternative, culturally appropriate treatment. Despite years of effort, there has been no significant progress in improving the overall situation of Aboriginal offenders during the last 20 years, and more research is needed to determine an appropriate course of action.

Quick summary

    • Aboriginal offenders have many of the same risk factors as other offenders
    • Aboriginal offenders are highly overrepresented in the criminal justice system relative to their numbers within the regular population (3% vs. 20-35%)
    • The current correctional system does not work for Aboriginal offenders, and their recidivism rates are high.

 

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References

  1. Rugge, T. (2006). Risk Assessment of Male Aboriginal Offenders: A 2006 Perspective. User Report 2006-01). Ottawa: Public Safety Canada. Retrieved from: http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/res/cor/sum/cprs200609_1-eng.aspx
  2. Anthony, T. (2010). Indigenous Justice Clearinghouse New South Wales. Sentencing Indigenous offenders. Retrieved from: http://www.indigenousjustice.gov.au/briefs/brief007.pdf
  3. Office of the Correctional Investigator. Backgrounder: Aboriginal inmates: The numbers reveal a critical situation (2010). Retrieved from: http://www.oci bec.gc.ca /rpt/ annrpt/annrpt20052006info-eng.aspx
  4. Zinger, I. (2006). Annual report of the office of the correctional investigator: Evidence of   systemic discrimination against Aboriginal inmates in Canada's prisons. Office of the Correctional Investigator. Retrieved from: http://www.ocibec.gc.ca/comm/press/press20061016-eng.aspx.
  5. Correctional Service Canada: Aboriginal Corrections. (2011). Healing lodges for Aboriginal  federal offenders. Retrieved from: http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/text/prgrm/abinit/challenge/11-eng.shtml
  6. Byrne, K., Byrne, M., Day, A., & Howells, K. (1999). Risk, needs and responsivity in violence rehabilitation: Implications for programs with Indigenous offenders. Australia Institute of Criminology. Retrieved from: http://www.aic.gov.au/events/aic%20upcoming%20events/1999/~/media/conferences/indigenous/howells.pdf
  7. Burrows, G., Reid, G., & Richardson, N. (2000). Aboriginal peoples and the criminal justice system: A special issue of the Bulletin, Ottawa, May 15, 2000. Ottawa: Canadian Criminal Justice Association. Retrieved from: http://www.ccja-acjp.ca/en/aboria.html

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Overview of topics covered to date