Opinion – Australia’s jails a national disgrace

Australia’s states and territories are building more and more prisons, trying to outdo each other on law and order.

Crime rates across Australia are falling , but incarceration rates have never been higher. So are the costs of locking up so many people. Australianj ails are becoming increasingly overcrowded, with many at breaking point.

They also don’t work. Recidivism rates are very high, with released prisoners more likely to return to jail than not. Yet all this is happening as crime rates, in most jurisdictions and for most offences, are falling. Something just doesn’t add up.

Recent numbers from the Justice chapter of Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services (RoGS show that in 2016-17, an average of 40, 059 people per day were held in Australian prisons, of which 8.1 percent were female and 27.6 percent were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The numbers are up from 35,000 in 2015 and 25,000 in 2005.

Another 68,110 offenders per day were serving community corrections orders, of which 19.1 percent were female and 20.1 percent were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders.

Nationally, state and territory corrective services agencies operated 114 prisons at 30 June 2017 (not counting police station lockups). Total expenditure across Australia was $4.1 billion, a real increase of 7.2 percent from the previous year. Imprisonment rates are increasing, in every jurisdiction.

The report pays special attention to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. The national imprisonment rate per 100,000 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population was 2,411.5 in 2016‑17, compared with a rate of 156.6 for the non-indigenous population. In other words, you are more than ten times more likely to be imprisoned if you are indigenous than if you are not.

Imprisonment rates the Northern Territory, which has a much higher proportion of indigenous people, were much higher than the rest of the country. Indigenous prisoners are also much younger than the national average.

Yet crime rates are decreasing. Statistics are notoriously out of date, but by most measures most crimes are decreasing. Some people argue that this is because more criminals are locked up, but this is fallacious reasoning – the rates were dripping long before the jail numbers went up.

Public perceptions that crime is increasing are at odds with the statistics. Politicians of all persuasion and sensationalist media exaggerate the numbers for their own ends. It’s much easier to lock people up and be seen to be doing something than to tackle the causes of crime.

The Productivity Commission report also looked at reoffence rates across Australia – measured by the proportion of people back in jail within two years of leaving it. In 2016-17, 44.8 percent of prisoners released in 2014-15 returned to prison within two years and 53.4 percent returned to corrective services (prison or community corrections). Nationally, these rates have increased over the last five years.

This would seem to indicate that prison is not an effective deterrent, or at least that Corrective Services do not ‘correct’. But the report points out that it also been an effect of higher policing rates. Because the time period measured is comparatively small, and many more people may reoffend beyond the two-year limit.

So, the number of jails and the number of prisoners just keep on increasing. In 2016 the NSW Government announced a$3.8 billion plan over four years to create 7000 extra beds in the state’s jails. A new ‘pop-up’ jail to deal with rampant overcrowding was opened in the Hunter Valley city of Cessnock in January, following another at Wellington in the state’s Central West. The inmates are housed in dormitory style accommodation, rather than cells.

In January Victoria announced a major new prison at Lara near Geelong, to help “keep Victorians safe.” The Opposition has criticised the Government for not building more jails. Queensland suffers from chronic prisoner overcrowding. Assaults on guards and prisoners are increasing. Tasmania will get a new jail, no matter who wins the election in March.

Australia has an incarceration rate of 168 prisoners per 100,000 population. It is lower than New Zealand’s 202, but higher than the UK’s 140. The major countries of Western Europe are all much lower: Germany, 78, Spain 131, Netherlands 69, France 103, Italy 89.

The US is the outlier amongst western democracies. The Land of the Free locks up its population at alarming rates – 693 prisoners per 100,000 population. Australia has a long way to go before we reach those obscene numbers, but we are trying hard.

Even on current numbers, the overcrowding, the recidivism rate, and the eagerness of governments to jump on the law and order bandwagon is a national disgrace.

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