MHDCD Project

Executive Summary

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with mental and cognitive disabilities are significantly over-represented in Australian criminal justice systems. However there has been a lack of critically informed evidence, analysis and co-ordinated policy and service response on this most pressing human rights issue. The Indigenous[1] Australians with Mental Health Disorders and Cognitive Disability in the Criminal Justice System (IAMHDCD) Project[2] brings an innovative Indigenous-informed mixed method research approach that provides, for the first time, a critical analysis of systems interactions and responses to the complex needs of Indigenous people with disability in criminal justice. It draws on the mental health disorder and cognitive disability MHDCD Dataset, which contains lifelong administrative information on a cohort of 2,731 persons who have been in prison in NSW and whose mental health and cognitive impairment diagnoses are known. All NSW criminal justice agencies (Corrective Services, Police, Juvenile Justice, Courts, Legal Aid) and human service agencies (Housing, Ageing Disability and Home Care, Community Services, Justice Health and Health NSW) have provided data relating to these individuals. A quarter (676) of the cohort is Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander: 583 Indigenous men (21% of the whole cohort and 86% of the Indigenous sub-cohort) and 93 Indigenous women (3% of the whole cohort and 14% of the Indigenous sub-cohort). This has enabled the compilation of administrative de-identified lifecourse ‘pathway’ case studies for Aboriginal people in the Dataset, providing a broad, dynamic, trans-criminal justice and human service understanding of their involvement in the criminal justice system. It also reports on a qualitative investigation of the experiences of Aboriginal women and men who have mental and cognitive disability and who have been in the criminal justice system undertaken in four communities in NSW and one community in the NT. Analyses and interpretation of these quantitative and qualitative findings are informed by the conceptual tools of decolonisation, complexity and critical methodologies in the fields of criminology, race, feminist and disability studies.

Our research team has developed an in-depth picture of the interactions of diagnoses, vulnerabilities, complex support needs and intensive interventions and how these coalesce for Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system. New understandings of the interactions amongst criminal justice and social, health, disability and other human services for Aboriginal people with complex support needs in two Australian criminal justice systems (NSW and NT) are detailed. This report sets out detailed quantitative analysis of the 676 Indigenous women and men in the MHDCD cohort as well as views of community members regarding systemic and social challenges, service failures, positive program interventions, and culturally responsive approaches and remedies. This project provides innovative theoretical and applied knowledge that can assist in the reduction of the unacceptably high level of Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities in Australian criminal justice systems.



[1] This project uses the term ‘Indigenous Australians’ to be consistent with government data collection terminology in our quantitative dataset. We understand that some people find this term problematic and refer to themselves as Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and/or by their clan or language group. In the qualitative findings and discussion sections of this report we primarily use ‘Aboriginal’ as this was how the communities we spoke to identified.

[2] Definitions of mental and cognitive disability.

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