Over the last fifteen years, there has been a sharp increase in unsentenced women being imprisoned on remand in Australia. While on remand, women prisoners have limited access to programs, services and support and are further limited due to the prisons classification system – remandees usually highly classified. Women prisoners on remand are more likely to be released with little support for their rehabilitation into real life.
Aggregate Sentence Length
Women are likely to get shorter aggregate sentences and less time to serve in prison than men; in 2013, the average aggregate sentence for woman was 9 months although it was 17 months for men. However, the sentencing of women is more likely to be inappropriate and ineffective; indeed, far from the ‘rational’ of a socially and financially independent male, a battered woman, a mother with dependent children, a woman who goes into debt to help another, a person with a drug addiction, a person who faces structural racism or suffers trauma, the legal system awards blame and does not even consider support as part of the equation. Ejected from society because of their illegal activity substantially too often perceived as ‘anti-feminine’ behaviour, prisons do not necessarily offer the appropriate means for women to live correctly in prison. For instance, some jurisdictions attempted to switch the traditional tracksuit with floral dresses. Interestingly enough, basic health, nutrition and humane treatment do not seem to equal ‘feminine needs’.
For both men and women, people who have previously been incarcerated are more likely to receive a term of imprisonment than those who have not. The rate of women returning to prison thorough Australia has increased. In 2013 the rate of recidivism for Indigenous women was 66.8% while non-Indigenous women’s was 41.5%.
Prospects of earning freedom provide an important incentive for individuals who have lost their liberty to improve themselves and to cooperate with the system. Removing that opportunity is inhumane leaves prisoners demoralized, passive and liable to be institutionalised. This often leads to boredom and a return to violence and drugs, which does not prepare them for life outside.
“Remissions” refers to a structured system that aims to encourage self-improvement and positive behaviour in prisoners by giving them a sense of responsibility and direction in life. It converts them from passive ‘recipients of punishment’ to active participants in their own lives.
In 2006, the Law Council of Australia recommended a system of earned remission in its submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission discussion paper, observing that where a prisoner behaved particularly well in prison and demonstrated real rehabilitation, a mechanism should be available to reduce the non-parole period.
The Nagle Royal Commission conducted in 1976-1978 also recommended a remission system taken on both head sentence and the non-parole period. It considered the system adopted in Victoria should be implemented in New South Wales. The Commission’s recommendations were adopted and provided prisoners proper incentives to work hard, behave well, and strive towards self-improvement, until it was repealed in 1989. Consequently, sentences have become longer and overcrowding in prisons has worsened since, in removing remissions, the Government has severely limited its options for managing the size of the prison population.
Sentencing options for Indigenous Women in Australia
Courts have a range of custodial and non-custodial sentencing options available, such as imprisonment, good behaviour orders, fines and discharges. Currently there are no specific legislative sentencing options for Indigenous Women offenders, although it has been recommended to amend sentencing legislations to make the ‘custody threshold’ higher for Indigenous offenders.
Indigenous Sentencing Courts
Indigenous sentencing courts have been introduced in Australia as a more culturally appropriate system of justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. By 2009, over 50 of them had been implemented all around Australia. The main distinctive feature of those courts is that criminal proceedings take place informally, allowing for an open exchange of information between judicial officers, the defendant, the victim and their communities.