A convict nation still?

   

A US prison, but you get the picture …

The ABS’s fascinating report  Measures of Australia’s Progress 2006 received a certain amount of coverage in the MSM when it was released last week.   Most of its findings are very positive.   But one disturbing aspect that hasn’t received any attention at all (as far as I know) is national imprisonment rates.   The report shows that imprisonment rates for adults have increased from 129 per 100,000 population in 1995 to 163 per 100,000 in 2005, an increase of more than 25% (see Report page 160).

Moreover, the increase isn’t explained by increasing crime rates.   Violent crime rates rose slightly from 4.8% to 5.3% between 1998 and 2005 (note this is  a shorter time series than that for imprisonment rates).   But household property crimes actually fell from 8.3% to 6.2% of households over that period (see Report page 158).   In fact the picture is a bit more complicated for property crime.   The rate actually rose slightly from 1998 to 2002 but then fell  quite sharply over the last 3 years.   I suppose one should consider the possibility that harsher  sentencing was part of the reason for that fall.   However, most researchers ascribe  the recent  reduction in property crime  to much more effective police intelligence leading to a drastic cut in the amount  of heroin reaching Australia, and hence a reduction in the number of addicts committing break and enters to get money for drugs.   That likely explanation is confirmed by figures elsewhere in the Report    (page 156) showing that the annual number of drug-related deaths in Australia more than halved betwen 1999 and 2005 (from 13 to 6 per 100,000 male population).

In fact, the imprisonment rate figures are even more disturbing than the previous analysis suggests.   When we look at the imprisonment rate for all people rather than just adults (i.e. if we include the imprisonment rate for kids), it appears (judging from the graph on page 160) that the rate of increase is even steeper.   It looks to have risen from about 70 per 100,000 total population in 1990 to 125 per 100,000 in 2005, an increase of some 78%.   That suggests that the imprisonment rate for kids must have almost doubled in the last 15 years!   As the report comments:

Historical data compiled by the Australian Institute of Criminology show that this trend has been part of a longer term trend over the last 20 or so years. There had also been an increasing trend during the 1950s and 1960s. Measured as a proportion of the total population rather than the adult population (those aged 18 years or over), it also shows that imprisonment rates in 2005 stood at levels higher than in most other years of the 20th century. Following the upward trend seen over recent decades, the rates have now returned to the levels observed at the beginning of the 20th century: in 2005 there were 125 prisoners per 100,000 people (of all ages) compared to 126 in 1900.

Fortunately we’re not yet as draconian as the Americans, who now imprison some 738 people per 100,000 population. However, the picture for indigenous Australians is even worse.   They get imprisoned at the rate of 1,560 per 100,000 population, more than 10 times the rate for other Australians.   It’s anything but a cause for national rejoicing, especially  when you consider that this manifestly  isn’t a response to increasing crime rates.   Instead, it’s difficult to ascribe this astonishing increase in the use of imprisonment to anything other than the political Laura  Norder auction that predictably takes place between state and territory political parties in the leadup to every election.   Quite apart from the financial costs (given that it costs more than $100,000 per year to keep someone in prison), I wonder what long-term social effects these sentencing practices will engender?   It’s hard to imagine they’ll be  positive ones.  And why isn’t this extraordinary situation receiving any coverage at all in the national media?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Scott Wickstein
15 years ago

Putting crims behind bars is a good way to reduce crime as well. It’s not like law abiding people start doing breakins to keep the stats up. The question is, at what point is it cheaper to allow the burglars freedom then to lock them up.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

“Instead, it’s difficult to ascribe this astonishing increase in the use of imprisonment to anything other than the political Laura Norder auction that predictably takes place between state and territory political parties in the leadup to every election.”

What is being claimed here? Haven’t we always had elections? Anyway, interesting post, and I agree it is strange that this has received no coverage, after more than a week. Probably too many other important things going on, like Branjelina’s baby.

I hate to sound like Alan Jones, but the only ethnic breakdown is by Aborigine/non-Aborigine. There is no breakdown by country of origin. I have seen quite astonishing claims about higher crime rates for certain ethnic groups, for instance in the SMH a few years ago. And that claim went unchallenged by any expert, so perhaps it was true. I bet stats like that WOULD get coverage.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
15 years ago

I hate to sound like Alan Jones

…but you’re going to, anyway.

There is no breakdown by country of origin.

You mean where people were born?

I have seen quite astonishing claims about higher crime rates for certain ethnic groups

No, wait, you don’t. What do you mean, then?

JC
JC
15 years ago

Ken

Yes the Americans do throw away the keys a lot, but surprisingly their impris rates are just a little wrose for white the Europe. The big cahuna in terms of impris rates compared to OZ is that here are 8 blacks and 4 hispanics to every white.

There are also longer jail terms for the same offences over there. For intance the 3 strikes rule they have is very different than here. Here it just means someone goes to jail whereas in the US it means means a life sentence without parole in some states if someone commits 3 felonies.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

Now Bill, be nice. Why is it OK to point out that aborigine’s have incarceration rates 10 times that of non-aborigines, but other ethnic comparisons are verboten?

Over the years, I have seen certain statements in reputable papers made by reputable sounding people. They are of the form “Ethnic group X has an 8 times higher murder rate than the national average” or “Ethnic group Y are charged with x% of drug related crimes but make up x/4% of the population”. I have then waited for an expert to refute the claims, but in vain.

Maybe the claims are correct then. I will not give the ethnic groupings (which, yes, were based on where their parents were born), because I am no Alan Jones. Nevertheless, I would be interested to see such statistics in the clear light of day, properly adjusted for economic status etc. I think the lack of such comparisons is a form of well meaning censorship.

One of the more interesting graphs in the document Ken cites compares suicide rates over time for men and women. Male rates are FOUR times higher than females in Australia. This is NOT the case in Asian societies, which one might find coutner-intuitive or not depending on your view of western feminism. I have written a paper on this several years ago which you can find on my website.

Cameron Riley
15 years ago

Stiffer sentencing is popular, which is probably why politicians fight between themselves who can introduce the most ludicrous penalties.

There is no breakdown by country of origin.

IIRC Victoria is the only state that records offenders brithplace when processing. Here is some data from that.

First generation immigrants offend less than Australian born. It is true in the United States too. It seems common-sense, an immigrant has more to lose and higher coercion over their head (ie getting sent back).

crocodile
crocodile
15 years ago

Maybe the wallopers are just catching more crooks.

Christine
Christine
15 years ago

Re US imprisonment rates: It’s tough mathematically to get white imprisonment rates in the US at Australian levels with an overall incarceration rate 7 times Australia’s.

CT had a recent discussion of this at:
http://crookedtimber.org/2006/05/23/incarceration-rates/#comments
(Sorry I suck at links)

They quote an incarceration rate of 0.7% for white males, which should aggregate up to 700/100,000 or rather more than the Australian incarceration rate (women would make a difference, though).

The figure for black males in the US is 4700 or so, which is so far above the Aboriginal incarceration rate (presumably even if adjusted for lower female incarceration rates) it’s not funny. Of Black males in their 20s 12% were imprisoned – whichever way you cut that, it means a very large % of black men experience jail at some point in their lives (ie not all about length of sentences).

Not that we should be patting ourselves on the backs for not being at US rates. Everyone looks good relative to the US.

There seems to have been a lot of political muttering about juvenile crime relative to adult crime in the last decade – do we know how juvenile crime rates have tracked relative to adult?

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

I have thought for some time that incarceration should be the foremost policy concern in developed countries, assuming that the government is committed to not doing anything stupid with economic policy.

It seems so central to all the rich-world social problems: entrenched disadvantage/marginalisation; long-term joblessness and job-market entry; homelessness; low-income family unit integrity; schooling, etc.

But it poses so many apparent dilemmas. Assuming that we put to one side Platonic solutions, how to reconcile the following:

– importance of individual responsibility to a long-term independent and succesful person v apparent lack thereof of some people with consequently very negative effects for their relatives/dependents/etc?

– importance of actually punishing crime, especially aggressive and property crimes v relative lack of culpability of some offenders and frequently extremely adverse consequences of incarceration?

– importance of not making prison rewarding v extreemly high desirability of producing potential members of society not merely loyal customers of HM’s corrective facilities?

Sometimes I wonder if decriminalising all drugs isn’t the magic wand (the US example encourages this thinking!) ; othertimes I shudder at the evil drugs do; in extreme moments I think we should return to prohibition!

I think part of the solution must be a greater reliance on eg community work. For example if you drink and drive or drive unlicensed you get 60 hours; if you recidive you get 600 (I really think that would be eminently reasonable).

I can’t see any way around making training and education a regular part of prison life but the Israeli experience with Palestine is certainly a warning…

Still, glad that some people care.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
15 years ago

Now Bill, be nice. Why is it OK to point out that aborigine’s have incarceration rates 10 times that of non-aborigines, but other ethnic comparisons are verboten?

The ABS’ reasons for including Aboriginal data are summarised on p14 of the report:

Its focus is Australia-wide, rather than summarising the progress of
particular groups of people. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia’s first inhabitants, and recognising the marked and widespread disadvantage that they experience…

So, basically, because they’re so much worse off than everyone else.

Do you have a source for your claim re ethnic crime? There doesn’t seem to be anything on the ABS site.

observa
observa
15 years ago

Here’s a stab. Since the 70s we’ve had Supporting Parents Benefits along with lots more black guilt sitdown money. If that ultimately produces more broken homes with fewer fathers similar to 70% of American blacks, we might expect similar numbers of aggressive/violent, recalcitrant males, that judges are increasingly unwilling to leave on the streets. We all know which suburbs in our major cities are filled with 2nd and 3rd generation fatherless households and just what no-go areas they are. Imprisonment by postcode and household Centrelink benifit might hold some clues. Realistically if we haven’t nipped poor behaviour in the bud by 15 or 16, they’re probably prison fodder for life.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

Do you have a source for your claim re ethnic crime?

No I don’t and it is not a major interest of mine!? I do not know of any studies in Australia and cannot see how to get the data from ABS files. But statements are made by credible people, so I assume there must be available data somewhere. Let’s not get too caught up about this issue. It just seemed strange to me that the report selects a single ethnic comparison to make, and their justification for doing this could equally be an argument against. Apparently, when you become disadvantaged enough, it becomes OK to point our how much higher your crime rates are.

If one were measuring progesses, wouldn’t it be interesting to see the rate at which new immigrants rise up the status ranks (not even broken down by ethnicity) and how this might have changed over time? I think it is far tougher for an unskilled migrant to make good here these days than it was for my Italian father-in-law. Which reminds me. I distinctly recall hearing a claim that post-war migrants were under-represented in crime compared to dinky-dies, by an academic type during an ABC discussion. So again, there is perhaps information out there but suppressed and selectively quoted.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

most researchers ascribe the recent reduction in property crime to much more effective police intelligence leading to a drastic cut in the amount of heroin reaching Australia

In Sydney “much more effective police intelligence” translates to “since the last cleanout of bent detectives”.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
15 years ago

But statements are made by credible people, so I assume there must be available data somewhere.

Sadly, this assumption is often unwarranted.

Angharad
Angharad
15 years ago

I wouldn’t assume the data is collected. The census includes people in prison – but that is “point-in-time” data. The average prison sentence is quite short so it doesn’t give you a good sense of who goes through, just who is there on the night.

ABS also uses data collected by the state corrections departments. Last time I looked at this, admittedly more than 5 years ago, the data collected was woeful. There is a good reason why they identify Aboriginality. It’s because of the recommendations of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody review.

Out of interest, I recently had occasion to sit through the Saturday Parramatta Court bail hearings. About 25 people in all and I’d have to say just looking at them, the overwhelming majority were white, about 2/3rds were male and I couldn’t pick any “ethnic” identity for most of them based on names and appearance. Now that’s anecdotal evidence, but I was recording nature of alleged crime and description of the bail applicant.