MHDCD Project

7.2 MHDCD Geographic Distribution Study

As part of the IAMHDCD Project, a study was undertaken to investigate concentrations of disadvantage by examining the geographic distribution of members of the MHDCD Dataset cohort, providing comparison on the basis of Indigenous status and gender (Baldry, McCausland & Xu 2013). All 2731 individuals in the MHDCD Dataset were included in the study. Areas of concentration of the cohort by suburb/town as well as postcode were identified from the data gathered by government agencies on residential addresses. The study investigated whether there were different patterns of distribution and concentration for women and men, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and Indigenous women and men. Broader literature in the field was drawn on to give context for these findings, providing analysis of what the findings contribute to the understanding of the experiences and needs of vulnerable people in the criminal justice system.

The unit of analysis used to measure geographic distribution in this study was the unique combination of individual and suburb/town. The study measured each unique count of individual and suburb/town recorded in the MHDCD Dataset over each individual’s lifecourse until 2009. Multiple addresses recorded for an individual in one suburb/town were only counted once. Addresses used in the count were gathered from a variety of data sources, primarily records of NSW Police, Corrective Services and Housing NSW. Every unique combination of individual and suburb/town found in the data was calculated, from individuals’ earliest contact with a criminal justice agency or public housing. Addresses relating to correctional centres were removed.[1] Records of individuals having no fixed place of abode (NFPA) were also removed from calculations. While such records reflect the common experience of homelessness for people in this cohort, the acronym is not recorded consistently or rigorously enough by various agencies to draw robust research conclusions. Analysis was undertaken at both the postcode and the suburb/town level. The finest granularity available for analysis was used where possible, which in most cases was at the suburb/town level. However, for certain purposes postcode level analysis was used where that was the finest granularity available. Utilising suburbs and postcodes, the locations in which all individuals in the cohort have resided over their lifetimes was plotted, providing information about the locational distribution of the cohort and sub-cohorts in particular geographic areas. The most important findings relate to suburb/town level.

There are several limitations associated with the data utilised in this study which should be noted. Due to restrictions associated with the varying quality and method with which different agencies record data and challenges associated with data linkage projects such as the MHDCD Dataset, this study could not at this time provide evidence of the movements of the cohort and sub-cohorts over time to and from certain places. The compilation of individual case studies allows for the tracking of such pathways, and this is an area for future research. In addition, the level of granularity allowed for in this study – at the suburb level where possible – while more detailed than much previous research, is still not fine enough to highlight the different experiences that can occur within these spatial locations, which, particularly in inner city Sydney, can be marked.

7.2.1 Geographic Distribution Study Findings

This study presents a preliminary picture of the geographic distribution and concentration of a specific group of vulnerable people in NSW, all of whom have been in prison and a significant number of whom have been diagnosed with one or more mental health disorders and/or cognitive impairment. Concentrations of people who have been in the criminal justice system have been identified in particular suburbs and areas, with significant variance on the basis of gender and Indigenous status. The study finds that Indigenous people in the cohort, and Indigenous women in particular, have lived in significantly higher numbers of different but concentrated number of suburbs and towns over their lifetimes. This confirms and adds significant evidence to Baldry et al’s (2006) findings that Indigenous women post-release had the highest rate of moving often.

This study differs from earlier research that sought to highlight concentrations of socio-economic disadvantage in Australia in that it is not a population-wide sample; it draws on a purposive sample of people who have been in prison in NSW. It is also the first to analyse this geographical distribution by the number of different places people have lived as well as by suburb and town, not just postcode. It contributes to the body of research on distribution of disadvantage, and demonstrates that there are concentrations of people in particular geographic locations, who experience multiple and compounding difficulties and often become enmeshed in the criminal justice system. It highlights suburbs and towns that are under great strain to support some of NSW’s most vulnerable people. This study provides insight into such concentrations, and gives specific detail on the towns and suburbs needing policy and program attention.

The key findings of this study are:

Concentrations in key areas

There are clear concentrations of individuals in the MHDCD Cohort in the inner city suburbs of Sydney, in some key regional towns, and in suburbs in the west and south west of Sydney. This supports and enhances earlier research that highlighted postcode disadvantage by various measures of socio-economic inequities, and reveals the depth of geographic concentration of those in contact with the criminal justice system. What is interesting and unique about this study is the evidence of concentration in specific suburbs and variances in concentration between members of the cohort on the basis of gender and Indigenous status.

Drawing on our research on the MHDCD cohort, we can surmise that there could be various contributing factors to these patterns of distribution and concentration:

•The suburbs and towns identified from which most of the people in the MHDCD Cohort come and return to are areas containing clusters of public and community housing that are often lacking support and services to respond appropriately to the compounded disadvantage experienced by many of those living there;

•People in the MHDCD Cohort may be moving to certain suburbs (such as those in the inner city that feature heavily) or towns (such as the key regional centres identified) to access specialised services (such as homeless, medical and disability), support and transitional housing;

•There may be over-policing of people in the MHDCD Cohort in those suburbs or towns, and of Indigenous people in particular;

•There may be movement to/away from a small number of particular suburbs or towns to be with or away from family and community, including in association with Apprehended Violence Order conditions and parole restrictions.

Significance of movement

This study demonstrates that a majority of people in the MHDCD Cohort have lived in a relatively small number of suburbs/towns although they may move often within a particular suburb or town. There is also a smaller number of highly mobile individuals who have been observed in a large number of suburbs/towns although still in the circumscribed places featuring in the top 50 places in this analysis. Earlier research on the cohort showed that individuals in the MHDCD Cohort have high rates of moving often characterised by moving in and out of prison and between primary, secondary and tertiary homelessness (Baldry et al, 2012). Though this particular address based study was unable to explore rates of homelessness, it is important to note the high rate of recording of NFPA, correctional centres, transitional or crisis accommodation providers as the address given by individuals in the cohort during their contact with Police and Corrective Services NSW.

Influence of gender and Indigenous status

Analysis conducted in this study demonstrates that gender and Indigenous status are both important influencing factors on the number of unique suburbs/towns ever lived in by people in the MHDCD Cohort. The study finds that being Indigenous has a more pronounced effect on having lived in more places for females than males. Gender and Indigenous status are both strongly associated in a statistically significant way in the distribution of addresses on the suburb level. Suburb and gender are strongly associated in a statistically significant way in the distribution of addresses at the suburb level for the Indigenous sub-cohort. This indicates that Indigenous people and Indigenous women in particular are more mobile across suburbs than others in the MHDCD Cohort.

Indigenous people in the MHDCD Cohort have lived on average in 1.2 times more suburbs/towns than non-Indigenous people. The concentration of Indigenous people in certain suburbs/towns is markedly different from the concentration of non-Indigenous people, with clusters of Indigenous people in the cohort in inner city suburbs and key regional centres/towns.  Thirty five per cent of Indigenous people have lived in one or more of just 3 suburbs and towns.

Indigenous women

On average Indigenous women have lived in more postcodes than Indigenous men. The difference in average number of postcodes ever lived is statistically significant. On average, Indigenous women have lived in 1.4 times more postcodes than Indigenous men and 40.9% have lived in one or more of just 3 adjacent suburbs, indicating extreme concentration. The difference within the Indigenous group in relation to gender is more significant than that for the full cohort.

Past research has highlighted the particular invisibility and vulnerability of Indigenous women in the criminal justice system (Baldry and McCausland, 2009). One of the major contributing factors is the lack of data highlighting the specific needs and experiences of Indigenous women. This study provides evidence of the distinct geographic concentration of Indigenous women, and confirms Indigenous women as the most highly mobile and disadvantaged group.

Policy implications

This study makes a unique and valuable contribution to understanding the specific location and concentration of people in the MHDCD Cohort. It provides sufficient detail for government agencies and NGOs providing services and support to people such as those in the cohort to reflect on and respond to possible mismatches between service availability and need, and also other under-examined aspects such as differences on the basis of gender and Indigenous status.

The findings have particular relevance for the emerging understanding of vulnerable people in the criminal justice system and in the community. It adds important understanding to the work research bodies such as the Urban Institute in the USA have done that revealed over the past decade that certain communities were overwhelmed by returning ex-prisoners who needed employment, mental and other health services, housing and community support (Travis 2005). This current study provides evidence of the concentrations of Indigenous women and men in particular experiencing multiple vulnerabilities relating to drug and alcohol abuse, mental health and cognitive disabilities, histories of trauma and abuse who cycle in and out of prison with little support or specialised services.


[1] This was done so that correctional centres were not counted as residences, however it is important to note that the appearance of correctional centre addresses can indicate insecure housing or homelessness.

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