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?