A Group of Men Sing in Australia's Northern Territory

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A Group of Men Sing in Australia's Northern Territory


By: Mission Australia

Date: April 8, 2004

Source: Mission Australia/Handout/Reuters/Corbis

About the Photographer: This photograph was supplied by a nondenominational Christian missionary organization, Mission Australia, that organizes volunteer patrols to pick up people intoxicated in public and take them to alternative accommodations.


The men in this undated photograph are indigenous Australians, often known as "Aborigines," living in the Northern Territory of Australia. They are making music in a public place; at the time the picture was taken a volunteer patrol known as a Community Day Patrol was nearby (it is not shown). The patrol was organized by a nondenominational Christian missionary organization, Mission Australia. The purpose of Community Day and Night Patrols is to pick up people who are intoxicated in public and take them to alternative accommodations such as the Caryota Sobering Up Shelter in the city of Darwin, which is partly funded by the Australian Department of Health and Community Services. The purpose of the Patrols is crime prevention. By taking intoxicated persons to shelters, the Patrols attempt to prevent violent behavior and subsequent arrest. There is no sign that the men in this photograph are intoxicated: rather, they represent the sort of peaceful social activity that is threatened by high addiction and crime rates among indigenous Australians.

Not all community patrols are run by Mission Australia. A Day Patrol was instituted in the small community of Ali-Curung in the Northern Territory in August, 1998, following the adoption by the Territory in 1996 of its Aboriginal Law and Justice Strategy. This is an attempt, in the words of the territorial government, at "not just a simple revitalisation of customary law, but also the use of culturally-relevant decision-making, combined with mainstream law and justice processes." The patrol in Ali-Curing is made up of local women, mostly Aborigines, one of whom describes the operation of the Patrols in the context of the community authority structure as follows: "We use the Elders [of the tribe] to come in and support Night Patrol in the community. If it gets worse and the person won't listen to the Elders, well we call in traditional owners then. They come and talk with the Elders and the Night Patrol about this person who's causing too much trouble. They then decide, the Elders and the traditional owners, what to do with the troublemaker. So this is just sorting out problems in this community meeting."



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The Aborigines of Australia are descended today from peoples who inhabited that continent prior to its colonization by Europeans beginning in the late eighteenth century. As of 2002, twice as many indigenous Australians were victims of physical violence annually than were non-indigenous Australians. Thirty-five percent of Aborigines fifteen years or older had been charged with a crime at some time in their lives and about 16 percent had been arrested during the previous five years. Although comprising only about 1.4 percent of the Australian population, Aborigines were 20 percent of the national prison population in 2003 (up from 14.5 percent in 1986), making an Aborigine about ten times likelier to be in prison than a non-Aborigine. Life expectancy is approximately twenty years less for Aborigines than for other Australians, alcoholism is common among Aboriginal adults, and sniffing gasoline, which causes permanent brain damage, is a problem among Aboriginal children. Alcohol use, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC, a government body), was in 1988 "the most significant feature of serious crime committed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders" (a distinct group of indigenous Australians). This explains the focus of the Day and Night Patrols, which seek to intervene non-violently before alcohol-intoxicated persons have clashed with the law.

The disproportionate incarceration rates, poor health, poverty, and addiction problems of the Aborigines are a consequence of several centuries of colonization. By 1900, disease and displacement (plus some direct violence) had killed off about 90 percent of the original population of Australia, and the survivors' descendents remained second-class citizens until relatively recently. For example, Aborigines did not have the right to vote in national elections until 1962. In 1986, the Australian Federal Government recommended that "the Aboriginal legal services be restructured to achieve greater involvement of Aboriginal communities in the day-to-day delivery of [legal] services," and in 1986 the AIC recommended, among other measures, the "empowerment of the Aboriginal people in areas of community regulation, crime prevention, and alcohol and offender rehabilitation …" Starting in the 1990s, these recommendations have reflected in such efforts as the Aboriginal Law and Justice Strategy of the Northern Territory.

The crime and alcohol problems of the Aborigines of Australia are by no means unique among aboriginal peoples who have been reduced by colonization to small minorities and relegated, for the most part, to remote reservations. Statistics for North American Indians (the term used for Native Americans by the U.S. Department of Justice) are similar in this respect to those for Australian Aborigines: American Indians suffer over twice the general U.S. rate of violent victimization, are more than twice as likely as members of other races to be arrested for alcohol-related offences, and are more than twice as likely to fall below the Federally defined poverty line.


Web sites

Australian Bureau of Statistics. "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples: Contact with the Law." 〈http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/〉 Jan. 20, 2006 (accessed March 2, 2006).

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. "American Indians and Crime." 〈http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/aic.htm〉 Feb. 14, 1999 (accessed March 2, 2006).

Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice." 〈http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/croc/sub3.htm〉 Sep. 11, 2003 (accessed March 2, 2006).