Alcohol and offending

13.7     The over-consumption of alcohol is associated with: health conditions including liver disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers; accidents and injury; and harms to family and community.[2]

13.8     A number of prior inquiries have also identified widespread problems relating to the harmful use of alcohol and the links between alcohol and offending. For example, the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that, while many drinkers in the Australian community consume alcohol responsibly, there is a substantial proportion of drinkers who consume alcohol at levels considered to increase the risk of alcohol-related harm.[3] The Productivity Commission’s 2016 Report into Indicators of Indigenous Disadvantage stated that excessive alcohol consumption increases an individual’s risk of death, disease and injury. Alcohol also contributes to family and community related problems, such as child abuse and neglect, work or financial problems, family breakdown, and violence and crime.[4]

13.9     The National Drug Strategy 2010–2015 noted that ‘excessive consumption of alcohol is a major cause of health and social harms’ and that,

[s]hort episodes of heavy alcohol consumption are a major cause of road and other accidents, domestic and public violence, and crime. Long-term heavy drinking is a major risk factor for chronic disease, including liver disease and brain damage, and contributes to family breakdown and broader social dysfunction.[5]

13.10  With respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2004–05 reported that, overall, fewer Aboriginal people drink alcohol than non-Indigenous people.[6] However, later inquiries have identified the harmful effects of alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.[7]

13.11  In 2015, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs conducted an inquiry into the harmful use of alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (House of Representatives Alcohol Inquiry). Its Report made 33 recommendations concerning best practice strategies to minimise alcohol misuse and alcohol-related harm and best practice alcohol treatments and support.[8]

13.12  Submissions to the House of Representatives Alcohol Inquiry spoke of the harm that alcohol abuse continues to cause Aboriginal communities and its connection to the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.[9] For example, the Australian Crime Commission noted that alcohol was a factor in 78% of violent offences involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons dealt with in the Alice Springs Supreme Court in 2010;[10] and the Northern Territory (NT) Police Association said that 60% of all assaults and 67% of reported domestic violence incidents in the NT involved alcohol.[11]

13.13  The Victorian Aboriginal Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) referred to research conducted through a partnership between the Victorian Department of Justice, Monash University and VACCHO, that showed ‘high levels of alcohol and drug use in Victorian Aboriginal people in prison (higher than for non-Aboriginal prisoners) contributing to increasing rates of Aboriginal incarceration’.[12]

13.14  In its submission to this Inquiry, Endeavour Drinks Group[13] suggested there is an oversimplification of the role alcohol plays in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offending. The Group suggested that alcohol itself does not cause violence. Instead, the Group suggested that alcohol abuse in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is a symptom of factors such as poverty, unemployment, passive welfare, and the loss of land and culture.[14]

13.15  However, a 2009 review of the Alice Springs Alcohol Management Plan suggested that high levels of alcohol consumption are associated with high levels of alcohol-related harm and low consumption with low levels of harm. Drawing on the work of the National Drug Research Institute (2007), the review identified the most effective measures to reduce alcohol-related harm. These included:

  • restrictions on the hours and days of sale on licensed premises;

  • minimum legal drinking age enforcement for consumption and purchase;

  • restrictions on high risk alcohol beverages (eg, cheap cask wine/fortified wine);

  • outlet density;

  • dry community declarations (when communities request declaration);

  • mandatory packages of restrictions for remote and regional areas;

  • restrictions on service to intoxicated people when enforced; and

  • community-based interventions when enforced.[15]

13.16  While a connection between alcohol abuse and criminal conduct has been identified, criminalising alcohol consumption may not be an appropriate response. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (the National Congress) has described such an approach as a ‘failed strategy, merely adding to a cycle of escalating rates of incarceration. It hides specific problems in watch-houses, prisons and institutions and provides no remedy. This approach should play no future part in the alcohol policy’.[16]

13.17  The National Congress further argued that alcohol offences should not be seen as a criminal justice issue, but rather as a social and health problem:

The way forward lies in a health and wellbeing approach based on community healing and personal rehabilitation, which addresses the historical and social factors which contribute to an unhealthy social environment and targets resources at those areas affected.[17]

13.18  Similarly, the NT Anti-Discrimination Commission submitted to this Inquiry that ‘alcohol misuse must be addressed as a social and health issue rather than criminalised … On repeated occasions, we have seen the failure to address misuse of alcohol in this way, lead to incarceration of Aboriginal people’.[18]

13.19  The Human Rights Law centre argued that:

[t]he response should be to address alcohol misuse for what it is—a complex health issue requiring health-focused responses within a broader framework of supply, demand and harm reduction—not to criminalise individuals struggling with alcohol addiction and other health and social challenges.[19]

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

13.20  Alcohol consumed during pregnancy has been shown to cause defects in the developing foetus.[20] There is also ‘increasing evidence that early onset of drinking during childhood and the teenage years can have health effects and interrupt the normal development of the brain’.[21]

13.21  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) describe a range of conditions that result from prenatal alcohol exposure during pregnancy. FAS and FASD can affect an unborn child exposed to alcohol in utero, with risk increasing as a multiple of the frequency and intensity of alcohol consumption. The effects of FAS and FASD on cognitive functioning and behaviour, first noticed in children, continues through to adulthood.[22]

13.22  Studies of the prevalence of FAS and FASD are limited. According to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG):

FASD is a community wide problem with prevalence rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) reported to be between 0.064 and 0.685 per 1,000 live births in Australia. Indigenous women are less likely to consume alcohol than non-Indigenous women but those who do are more likely to consume harmful amounts. FAS is up to 4 times higher in Indigenous Australians: 2.767 to 4.75 per 1,000 live births.[23]

13.23  RANZCOG describes the range of behavioural disabilities associated with FAS and FASD as ‘behavioural disorders (for example, poor impulse control) and developmental delay including impaired language and communication, social and emotional delays. These have lifelong implications such as impaired education, employment and imprisonment’.[24]

13.24  Some research points to FAS and FASD contributing to Aboriginal incarceration rates.[25] However, data on the relationship between imprisonment and FASD is scarce. One Canadian study found that youths with FASD are 19 times more likely to be incarcerated than youths without FASD in a given year.[26] There is limited statistical information in Australia about incarcerated persons with FASD:

Limited research has investigated the relationship between FASD and contact with the criminal justice system in Australia. The limited Australian literature, complemented by international research, indicates that FASD should be considered at every stage of the criminal justice system, from offending behaviour, through to court proceedings, as well as throughout incarceration and post-release. There is no Australian estimate of the number of offenders with FASD. Overseas studies of individuals with FASD, however, demonstrate high rates of contact with the criminal justice system.[27]

13.25  The National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee made six specific recommendations directed at FAS and FASD, including: community information campaigns about the effects of consuming alcohol while pregnant; training of health practitioners to increase the earlier diagnosis and to assist in early identification and intervention; and other initiatives to address available support for people with FASD.[28] Other research has suggested that resourcing Indigenous organisations to provide mentoring and family and support services, as well as ‘on-country’ camps that aim to stabilise affected young people while attempting to heal families, may address the social effects of FAS and FASD more appropriately than a criminal justice response.[29]

13.26  The Commonwealth has developed an action plan to reduce the impact of FASD, which aims to improve outcomes for FASD affected infants as well as reducing its incidence in the population.[30]