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Indigenous Offenders

Indigenous Offenders

The content on this page was last reviewed on 15 June 2022.

1. Overview

There are no provisions in the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) which legislate specifically to regulate or guide the sentencing of federal Indigenous offenders.

Race and indigeneity, in themselves, must not be used as mitigating or aggravating factors in sentencing. To do so would be contrary to s 9 of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). See Rogers v The Queen (1989) 44 A Crim R 301, 307 and Bugmy v The Queen [2013] HCA 37, [36]–[37].

2. General matters

In Rogers v The Queen (1989) 44 A Crim R 301 at 307 Malcom CJ explained that while race is not a permissible ground of discrimination in the sentencing process:

… there may well be particular matters which the court must take into account, in applying those principles, which are mitigating factors applicable to the particular offender. These include social, economic and other disadvantages which may be associated with or related to a particular offender’s membership of the Aboriginal race.

2.1 Customary law, cultural practice and sentencing

Section 16A(2A) prevents a court from taking into account ‘any form of customary law or cultural practice’ in the assessment of the seriousness of the criminal behaviour constituting the offence, subject to one express exception. Section 16A(2A) is in the following terms:

(2A) However, the court must not take into account under subsection (1) or (2), other than paragraph (2)(ma), any form of customary law or cultural practice as a reason for:

  • (a) excusing, justifying, authorising, requiring or lessening the seriousness of the criminal behaviour to which the offence relates; or 
  • (b) aggravating the seriousness of the criminal behaviour to which the offence relates.

Section 16A(2A) has an express exception for circumstances in which s 16A(2)(ma) applies.

Section 16A(2)(ma) provides that a court must take into account ‘if the person’s standing in the community was used by the person to aid in the commission of the offence — that fact as a reason for aggravating the seriousness of the criminal behaviour to which the offence relates’. The effect of s 16A(2A) read with s 16A(2)(ma) is that ‘customary law or cultural practice’ can be taken into account only as a reason for aggravating the seriousness of the criminal behaviour, if the person’s standing in the community was used by the person to aid in the commission of the offence.

The Explanatory Memorandum which introduced s 16A(2A) explained that the amendment was made to make it clear that s 16A(2)(ma) had primacy over s 16A(2), stating at [259]:

The prohibition in subsection 16A(2A) against taking into account any form of customary law or cultural practice as a reason for aggravating the seriousness of the criminal behaviour does not apply if this is what gave rise to the person’s standing in the community and was used by the person to aid in the commission of the offence.

See further commentary on Cultural Background and Customary Practices and Character.

3. Equality in treatment

The same sentencing process should apply to all offenders. A sentencing court should consider all material factors including social and economic disadvantage which exist because of an offender’s particular cultural or ethnic background. In Neal v The Queen [1982] HCA 55, Brennan J stated at [13]:

The same sentencing principles are to be applied, of course, in every case, irrespective of the identity of a particular offender or of his membership of an ethnic or other group. But in imposing sentences, courts are bound to take into account, in accordance with those principles, all material facts including those facts which exist only by reason of the offender’s membership of an ethnic or other group.

The statement of principle in Neal has been cited with approval in Munda v Western Australia [2013] HCA 38 at [53] and Bugmy v The Queen [2013] HCA 37 at [39]. In Munda, the majority judgment of French CJ, Hayne, Crennan, Kiefel, Gageler and Keane JJ further clarified at [53]:

It would be contrary to the principle stated by Brennan J in Neal to accept that Aboriginal offending is to be viewed systemically as less serious than offending by persons of other ethnicities. To accept that Aboriginal offenders are in general less responsible for their actions than other persons would be to deny Aboriginal people their full measure of human dignity. It would be quite inconsistent with the statement of principle in Neal to act upon a kind of racial stereotyping which diminishes the dignity of individual offenders by consigning them, by reason of their race and place of residence, to a category of persons who are less capable than others of decent behaviour (R v KU; Ex parte Attorney-General (No 2) [2011] 1 Qd R 439 at 475-476 [133]). Further, it would be wrong to accept that a victim of violence by an Aboriginal offender is somehow less in need, or deserving, of such protection and vindication as the criminal law can provide.

See also R v KU & Ors; ex parte A–G (Qld) [2008] QCA 154, [133].

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4. The Fernando principles

Courts have recognised some general propositions in relation to the sentencing of indigenous offenders. These may be of assistance in the sentencing of indigenous offenders for federal offences. In R v Fernando (1992) 76 A Crim R 58 Wood J stated at [62]–[63]:

In the course of his careful and helpful submissions on sentence, Mr Nicholson QC made reference to a number of authorities and reports or papers, concerning the sentencing of aborigines including extracts from a paper ‘The sentencing of aboriginal offenders” by Justice Toohey; the recent report of J H Wooten QC concerning the Royal Commission into aboriginal deaths in custody; Regina v Neal (1982) 149 CLR 305; Regina v Davey (1980) 50 FLR 57; Regina v Friday (1984) 14 ACR 471; Regina v Yougi (1987) 33 ACR 301; Regina v Rogers and Murray (1989) 44 ACR 301 and Regina v Juli (1990) 50 ACR 31. As I read those papers and decisions they support the following propositions:

(A) The same sentencing principles are to be applied in every case irrespective of the identity of a particular offender or his membership of an ethnic or other group but that does not mean that the sentencing court should ignore those facts which exist only by reason of the offenders’ membership of such a group.

(B) The relevance of the Aboriginality of an offender is not necessarily to mitigate punishment but rather to explain or throw light on the particular offence and the circumstances of the offender.

(C) It is proper for the court to recognise that the problems of alcohol abuse and violence which to a very significant degree go hand in hand within Aboriginal communities are very real ones and their cure requires more subtle remedies than the criminal law can provide by way of imprisonment.

(D) Notwithstanding the absence of any real body of evidence demonstrating that the imposition of significant terms of imprisonment provides any effective deterrent in either discouraging the abuse of alcohol by members of the Aboriginal society or their resort to violence when heavily affected by it, the courts must be very careful in the pursuit of their sentencing policies to not thereby deprive Aboriginals of the protection which it is assumed punishment provides. In short, a belief cannot be allowed to go about that serious violence by drunken persons within their society are treated by the law as occurrences of little moment.

(E) While drunkenness is not normally an excuse or mitigating factor, where the abuse of alcohol by the person standing for sentence reflects the socio-economic circumstances and environment in which the offender has grown up, that can and should be taken into account as a mitigating factor. This involves the realistic recognition by the court of the endemic presence of alcohol within Aboriginal communities, and the grave social difficulties faced by those communities where poor self-image, absence of education and work opportunity and other demoralising factors have placed heavy stresses on them, reinforcing their resort to alcohol and compounding its worst effects.

(F) That in sentencing persons of Aboriginal descent the court must avoid any hint of racism, paternalism or collective guilt yet must nevertheless assess realistically the objective seriousness of the crime within its local setting and by reference to the particular subjective circumstances of the offender.

(G) That in sentencing an Aborigine who has come from a deprived background or is otherwise disadvantaged by reason of social or economic factors or who has little experience of European ways, a lengthy term of imprisonment may be particularly, even unduly, harsh when served in an environment which is foreign to him and which is dominated by inmates and prison officers of European background with little understanding of his culture and society or his own personality.

(H) That in every sentencing case, while it is important to ensure that the punishment fits the crime and not to lose sight of the objective seriousness of the offence in the midst of what might otherwise be attractive subjective circumstances, full weight must be given to the competing public interest to rehabilitation of the offender and the avoidance of recidivism on his part.

A number of jurisdictions have applied these general propositions in sentencing indigenous offenders: see Bropho v Harrison [2013] WASC 250, [46]; R v Tjami [2000] SASC 311, [9]; Police v Abdulla (1999) 74 SASR 337, [34] and R v Daniel [1997] QCA 139. The Fernando principles were also supported in the High Court decision of Bugmy v The Queen [2013] HCA 37, [37]–[41].

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5. Application of the Fernando principles

Later decisions have clarified the principles in Fernando. In R v Ceissman [2001] NSWCCA 73, Wood CJ cautioned at [32]:

As I endeavoured to explain in Fernando, the eight propositions there enunciated were not intended to mitigate the punishment of persons of Aboriginal descent, but rather to highlight those circumstances that may explain or throw light upon the particular offence, or upon the circumstances of the particular offender which are, referable to their aboriginality, particularly in the context of offences arising from the abuse of alcohol… The principles stated should not be elevated so as to create a special class of persons for whom leniency is inevitably to be extended, irrespective of the objective and special circumstances of the case. To do so would itself be discriminatory of others.

In Bugmy v The Queen [2013] HCA 37 at [36] the majority emphasised that there is no justification for applying a different method of analysis to sentencing Aboriginal offenders than that which applies to non-Aboriginal offenders. French CJ, Hayne, Crennan, Kiefel, Bell and Keane JJ stated at [37]:

An Aboriginal offender’s deprived background may mitigate the sentence that would otherwise be appropriate for the offence in the same way that the deprived background of a non-Aboriginal offender may mitigate that offender’s sentence. In this respect, Simpson J has correctly explained the significance of the statements in Fernando (Kennedy v The Queen [2010] NSWCCA 260 at [53]):

“Properly understood, Fernando is a decision, not about sentencing Aboriginals, but about the recognition, in sentencing decisions, of social disadvantage that frequently (no matter what the ethnicity of the offender) precedes the commission of crime”. [Emphasis added]

See also R v Tjami [2000] SASC 311, [9]; R v Curtis (No 2) [2009] SASC 350R v Booth [2014] NSWCCA 156, [19]–[20].

5.1 Deprived background

Where an individual’s background of deprivation is relied upon as mitigating factor, it is necessary to support this with evidence. In Bugmy v The Queen [2013] HCA 37, the Court stated at [41]:

In any case in which it is sought to rely on an offender’s background of deprivation in mitigation of sentence, it is necessary to point to material tending to establish that background.

The High Court held in Bugmy v The Queen [2013] HCA 37 at [41] that to take general notice of ‘the systemic background of deprivation of Aboriginal offenders’ is ‘antithetical to individualised justice’ and says ‘nothing about a particular Aboriginal offender’. The Court also noted at [40] that not all Aboriginal offenders come from deprived backgrounds. The Court then went on to discuss the weight to be given to an offender’s deprived background at [44]:

Because the effects of profound childhood deprivation do not diminish with the passage of time and repeated offending, it is right to speak of giving “full weight” to an offender’s deprived background in every sentencing decision. However, this is not to suggest, as the appellant’s submissions were apt to do, that an offender’s deprived background has the same (mitigatory) relevance for all of the purposes of punishment. Giving weight to the conflicting purposes of punishment is what makes the exercise of the discretion so difficult. An offender’s childhood exposure to extreme violence and alcohol abuse may explain the offender’s recourse to violence when frustrated such that the offender’s moral culpability for the inability to control that impulse may be substantially reduced. However, the inability to control the violent response to frustration may increase the importance of protecting the community from the offender. [Citations omitted]

The application of the principles in Bugmy were discussed in the state sentencing case of Hoskins v The Queen [2021] NSWCCA 169. Basten JA stated at [1]:

Although those [Bugmy] principles can apply generally to offenders brought up in circumstances of social disadvantage, they have particular application and are commonly invoked in relation to members of Indigenous communities. That is because, as has been documented by numerous inquiries and research studies, those communities continue to exhibit the dislocation resulting from foreign invasion, disruption of culture and minority racial status.

Brereton JA stated at [57]:

Although the High Court used the term “profound childhood deprivation” when referring to its enduring effects, what was said to require consideration was “an offender’s deprived background”. There is no magic in the word “profound”, and it is not necessary to characterise an offender’s childhood as one of “profound deprivation” before the principle is engaged. The principle is that social disadvantage may reduce an offender’s moral culpability, especially where the offending is in the nature of impulsive or learned responses to situations, arising from the circumstances of social disadvantage. Thus the Bugmy principles may not operate to reduce moral culpability in a case where careful planning and premeditation is involved, such as cultivation and drug supply matters.

In DPP v Herrmann [2021] VSCA 160 at [46] the Court of Appeal (Maxwell P, Kaye, Niall, T Forrest and Emerton JJA), in a sentencing case about a non-Indigenous offender, explained the rationale of the principles in Bugmy as follows:

It is the mark of a humane society that the moral judgment expressed through sentencing should take account of the lifelong damage that may result from exposure to violence or abuse or parental neglect in an offender’s formative years. As the present case graphically illustrates, childhood trauma can permanently damage — and seriously distort — a person’s view of the world around them and their understanding of social norms. Thus, in Freeburn v The Queen [No 2] [[2020] VSCA 176], it was accepted that the offender’s ‘background, of deprivation and abuse, played a material role in shaping his responses, and thus in his offending’. In Snow [[2020] VSCA 67], the Court drew attention to ‘the impact on the decision-making of individuals of growing up, and living, in circumstances of prolonged and widespread social disadvantage’. [Citations added]

The Bugmy Bar Book is a free resource which publishes chapters summarising key research relating to experiences of disadvantage and deprivation. The purpose of the for the legal profession is to assist with the application of the Bugmy principles. It is published on the website of the NSW Public Defenders. For more information, see:

In R v BS-X [2021] ACTSC 160 at [38]–[71], Loukas-Karlsson J relied on an expert report by a registered psychologist, which had in turn referred to and relied on the Bugmy Bar Book, in explaining the nexus between the offender’s background of deprivation and offending behaviour.

5.2 Issues relating to mitigation and aggravation

A court should be careful to consider whether relevant sentencing factors are mitigating or aggravating. In the State case of E (A Child) (1993) 66 A Crim R 14 Franklyn J stated at [19]:

… whilst the factors of Aboriginality, ethnic oppression, socioeconomic deprivation, family environment and similar matters or any of them may have relevance in a particular case to the appropriate sentence to be imposed on an offender, none of them is self-executing in the sense that its mere existence necessarily requires a reduction of the penalty otherwise appropriate to the offence. Such matters may explain, at least to some extent, motive or a lack of it, identify influences which have contributed to the commission of the offence which may or may not be mitigatory and reveal circumstances which might be relevant to the appropriateness or otherwise of a custodial term and of probation and/or parole eligibility in a particular case.

However, in respect of an offender’s deprived background, this may not have the same mitigatory relevance for all purposes of punishment. For example, an offender’s inability to control a violent response to frustration due to childhood exposure to extreme violence may reduce the offender’s moral culpability for that inability. However, it may also increase the importance of protecting the community from the offender: Bugmy v The Queen [2013] HCA 37, [44]. See also Munda v Western Australia [2013] HCA 38, [52]; Western Australia v Upkett [2013] WASCA 263, [70].

5.3 Deprived background is not a factor which diminishes in weight over time

In Bugmy v The Queen [2013] HCA 37 the High Court held that the effects of profound childhood deprivation do not diminish with the passage of time and repeat offending. The Court held at [43]:

The experience of growing up in an environment surrounded by alcohol abuse and violence may leave its mark on a person throughout life. Among other things, a background of that kind may compromise the person’s capacity to mature and to learn from experience. It is a feature of the person’s make-up and remains relevant to the determination of the appropriate sentence, notwithstanding that the person has a long history of offending.

Loukas-Karlsson J summarised the relevant principles in the territory sentencing case of R v BS-X [2021] ACTSC 160 at [87]:

In summary, a history of disadvantage and deprivation may be a mitigating factor on sentence: see Bugmy [41]–[44]. What is clear from , and subsequent case law, is that:

  • (a) The effects of disadvantage and deprivation do not diminish with the passage of time: Bugmy at [44];
  • (b) The Bugmy principles do not diminish in relevance where an offender has an existing criminal record: Bugmy at [33] and R v Irwin [2019] NSWCCA 133 at [3] (Irwin); and
  • (c) The application of the Bugmy principles is not discretionary: Irwin at [3].

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6. Culture and Rehabilitation

Culturally appropriate responses are important in facilitating the rehabilitation of Indigenous offenders. In R v BS-X [2021] ACTSC 160, Loukas-Karlsson J referred to a report published for the Bugmy Bar Book titled ‘Significance of Culture to Wellbeing, Healing and Rehabilitation’, stating at [82]:

The report examines rehabilitation and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Further, the report examines the relationship between Aboriginal culture, healing, rehabilitation, and the impact of imprisonment. The report highlights the importance of culture to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and therefore, the importance of culturally appropriate treatments to facilitate rehabilitation. The operation of culturally appropriate treatments are explored in relation to the criminal justice system. The report underlines that cultural identity is an important protective factor that promotes self-worth and therefore, rehabilitation.

7. Indigenous offenders and sentences of imprisonment

The High Court in Bugmy v The Queen [2013] HCA 37 at [39] approved the proposition in Fernando that an offender’s indigeneity may be relevant to the sentencing determination where a lengthy term of imprisonment might be ‘particularly burdensome’ because of the offender’s ‘background or lack of experience of European ways’.

This was considered by the High Court (at [39]) to conform with Brennan J’s statement in Neal v The Queen [1982] HCA 55 at [13], that while the same sentencing principles apply irrespective of race, a court is bound to take into account ‘all material facts including those facts which exist only by reason of the offender’s membership of an ethnic or other group’.

See further: Hardship: Cultural Background of Offender.

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The CSD acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians and recognises their culture, history, diversity and their deep connection to the land. We acknowledge that we are on the land of the traditional owners and pay respects to Elders past and present.

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