Bursting at the seams: Number of women in Qld jails tripled since 2005

The number of Queensland women receiving a prison sentence has more than tripled since 2005/06, jumping from 485 cases to more than 2100 over 13 years.


Aug 17, 2022, updated Aug 17, 2022
Borallon Correctional Centre Brisbane.(AAP Image/Jono Searle)

Borallon Correctional Centre Brisbane.(AAP Image/Jono Searle)

In 2005/06, 1.7 per cent of women were jailed as part of their sentence, a report from the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council shows. The number jumped to 6.2 per cent in 2018/19, despite the overall rate of women being sentenced in Queensland courts declining since 2009/10.

The average jail term was 11.3 months and nearly all women and girls were sentenced in Magistrates Courts (97.8 per cent), which oversee less serious offences.

The most common offences for which women received a prison sentence included stealing (10 per cent), breach of bail (8.7 per cent), possession of dangerous drugs (7.1 per cent), fraud (6.8 per cent) and assaults occasioning bodily harm (six per cent).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls and women made up close to one-third of sentenced cases – almost eight times their level of representation in the general Queensland population.

“This is an even higher level of over-representation compared to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males,” council chair John Robertson said.

The level of over-representation is even higher for girls 12 years and under, with the vast majority of those sentenced (74.6 per cent) identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

“(The report) demonstrates that comparatively minor offending leads to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls being sentenced to imprisonment,” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Panel chair Boneta-Marie Mabo said.

“The findings highlight the urgency of addressing the disproportionate incarceration of First Nations women and girls in the Queensland criminal justice system.”

A Queensland Greens push to raise the criminal age from 10 to 14 was voted down in the state’s parliament on Tuesday night, with Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman stating more work needs to be done before the measure could be taken responsibly.

“Proceeding to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility without the necessary framework for responding to children who exhibit harmful behaviour is irresponsible,” she told parliament.

Sisters Inside founder, Debbie Kilroy, described the situation for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Queensland as horrific.

The organisation helps women and girls get bail, organises legal representation and supports them in the community.

“We call that decarceration … it’s about keeping the girls and the women out of the system at any point when they’re going to collide with it,” she said.

The state has a tendency to use police and prisons as a default response to social issues, Ms Kilroy says.

“If education was the priority … that would change many women’s lives, but it’s not. We just have a system that maintains the status quo,” she said.

“All we’re doing is warehousing people, and they are getting churned over and over and over again.”

Research has consistently pointed to stable housing as being key, and the sector should be treated as a priority by governments trying to reduce people in prison, she said.

“We just need to rethink and re-imagine what justice could really look like, instead of thinking … that police and prisons is the only response that we can have to any social issue,” Ms Kilroy said.

Women’s imprisonment has been increasing in Australia, the United Kingdom and United States since the 1980s, and is also increasing at a much faster rate than for men, Mr Robertson said.

“In Australia, the population of men in prison doubled from 1991 to 2021. At the same time, the female prison population tripled,” he said.

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