The crime of bad punishment

PENALTIES! More and more! Bigger and bigger! It seems that every time a parliament sits, someone is moving an increase in levels of punishment.

And now there is an election coming. fines go up and custodial offences increase in number and length.

The Productivity Commission’s annual “Report on Government Services”, of January 2010, found Australian prisons were ineffective in tackling the causes of crime and provided overcrowded warehouses for indigenous Australians.

The same report found that Victoria and the ACT, having low imprisonment rates by comparison to other States and Territories, also had low recidivism rates. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 20009-2010, “the highest proportional increases in prisoner numbers were for the ACT”. The increase was 38 per cent and followed the opening of the Alexander Maconochie Centre.

The next highest was for WA at 8 per cent, and then Victoria and the NT at a 4 per cent increase.

The ACT figures provide a weighty warning to some myopic members of the Assembly who, a year out from an election, think action on crime is achieved simply by increasing penalties.

Credit does go largely to the Stanhope Government in retaining the percentage of prisoners at about the same level of around 100 prisoners per 100,000 of the population over the 10-years to 2010.

At the same time the NT recorded the largest percentage, rising from 469 to 663 prisoners per 100,000 of the adult population. SA increased from 113 to 153.

However, with a new prison in the ACT and “tough-on-crime” talk, how long will the ACT retain sensible rates?

A comparison of NSW and Victoria is telling. NSW went through a series of “tough-on-crime” elections with major parties outbidding each other for the popular vote. That State now has a rate of 196.6 per 100,000 of its population. This is nearly double the rate of Victoria at 105.5 per 100,000.

With 21,334 prisoners in NSW at June 2010, think of the costs to the taxpayers at over $100,000 per prisoner per annum!
Recurrent expenditure on prisons in Australia in 2008-09 was $2.8 billion compared to $400 million spent on community corrections.

Don’t hold your breath for an election fought on increased community corrections.

According to the ABS, between 2000 and 2010 imprisonment rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians increased from 1248 to 1892 per 100,000 of their adult population. Over the same period the rate for non-indigenous prisoners increased from 130 to 134 per 100,000 for other Australians. This means that, 20 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, we incarcerate our original Australians at a rate 14 times greater than other Australians.

The ACT does so at just beyond the national average with a ratio of 14.8 indigenous people to every non-indigenous person. Things are getting worse, not better and it should be a great embarrassment for Australians who have a shred of empathy.

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government.

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