I closed yesterday’s post on national imprisonment rates by rhetorically asking why the mainstream media hasn’t perceived as newsworthy the quite marked increase in imprisonment over the last decade and more.
One reason may be that, despite significantly greater resort to imprisonment in Australia over the last decade or so, we are still very moderate/lenient in world comparative terms, as the following graph from a recent Crooked Timber post shows:
As you can see, US imprisonment rates are way out in a class all of their own. But Australia’s imprisonment rate remains somewhat lower than the UK. And yet, as can be seen from the graph over the fold (taken from an excellent and very comprehensive US Department of Justice comparative study), Australian home burglary rates, which most immediately impact general public perceptions of crime risk, are significantly higher than the UK’s and indeed those of other countries with which we usually compare ourselves (although they have fallen sharply over the last 3 years, which the graph doesn’t show). The relatively high home burglary rate may partly account for the hypersensitivity of Australian politicians to crime issues, and the fact that crime stories invariably provoke dramatic reactions whenever radio shock jocks discuss them.
On the other hand, Australian robbery rates are rather lower than the international average (and lower than both the US and UK), while car theft rates are around the average. I haven’t compared other categories of crime, but interested readers can look through the US Department of Justice study .
What does the research tell us about the sorts of policies Australia should be pursuing to reduce crime? Well, economist Steve Levitt of Freakonomics fame has made some partly controversial findings about the US situation:
Crime dropped sharply and unexpectedly in the United States in the 1990s. I conclude that four factors collectively explain the entire drop in crime: increases in the number of police, increases in the size of the prison population, the waning of the crack epidemic, and the legalization of abortion in the 1970s. Other common explanations for declining crime appear far less important. The factors identified are much less successful in explaining fluctuations in crime in the preceding two decades. The real puzzle is not why crime fell in the 1990s, but rather, why crime did not begin falling earlier.
Levitt’s claims about the role of legalised abortion in falling crime rates (the theory being that it reduced the number of unwanted children who are more likely to become criminals) has been somewhat discredited, but his remaining causative claims are fairly well supported by other research. Certainly enhanced, better resourced and more intelllgently deployed policing consistently shows up as an important factor in reducing crime rates. Key aspects of reducing crime include increasing the certainty of detection (hence the importance of enhanced policing) but also increasing the certainty of punishment. However, most research (including the US Department of Justice study mentioned earlier) shows that increasing the length of imprisonment (as opposed to the certainty of its occurrence) does not increase the deterrent effect.
On the other hand, very short terms of imprisonment (less than 1 year) seem actually to be counterproductive, especially for first and second offenders, because any minimal deterrent effect is outweighed by the “prison as school for crime” effect. That’s probably the main reason why the former NT CLP government’s notorious mandatory sentencing regime was such a complete failure. It essentially forced courts to sentence first and second offenders for minor property crimes to 14 day-3 month prison terms. Anyone familiar with criminological research shouldn’t have been surprised that the CLP’s policy resulted in crime rates actually increasing, and then falling again as soon as the Martin Labor government abolished this silly law.
By contrast, large increases in the length of imprisonment certainly have some crime reduction effect through incapacitation if not deterrence. Many US states implemented draconian “three strikes and you’re in” mandatory imprisonment laws over the last 15 years or so, with third offenders automatically imprisoned for very long periods (typically 10 years and more). Criminals don’t commit crimes (except against each other) while they’re in prison, so if you put enough of them behind bars for long enough you’ll achieve some reduction in crime. Whether the financial and social costs of such an extreme strategy can be justified on a straight cost/benefit analysis, however, is doubtful to say the least. Levitt claims that such policies can be shown to provide net benefits, but I’d take a lot of convincing because his claims don’t square with any other research I’ve read.
Finally, someone raised the issue of crime and ethnicity on the previous thread. The association between Aboriginality and crime is a very strong one, as mentioned on the previous thread. Only patient and well co-ordinated policies over a wide range of areas, as discussed in my previous post on this topic, are likely to have a significant impact, and then only gradually. As far as I know, the only Australian research on ethnicity and crime in a more general sense is a 1999 Australian Institute of Criminology study by Mukherjee. Unfortunately it appears that only Victoria collects (or at least publishes) statistics on crime rates and ethnicity, and even those figures in Mukherjee’s study are now a little dated. Presumably other states must think it would be unduly inflammatory or politically incorrect to collect such figures. Mukherjee finds (see chapter 4 page 51) that, although most ethnic groups have crime rates significantly lower than those of Australian born people, there are a few groups with very much higher crime rates. Rumanians, Yugoslavians and Russians head the list, with the former having crime rates some 300% higher than Australian born residents. Then come Vietnamese, Lebanese, Turks and Fijians. Kiwis and Cambodians also exhibit higher crime rates than Australian born people, but not by much.
I suspect that the figures for Lebanese crime in Sydney would be even higher today than the Victorian ones from 8 years or so ago. Conversely it may well be that Vietnamese crime rates are somewhat lower now. Moreover, these high crime ethnic groups are probably an artefact of the 1980s, when lax migration rules allowed lots of unskilled migrants with poor English language proficiency to gain entry under the humanitarian or family reunion programs. They tended to form ethnic ghettoes and to import and perpetuate significant patterns of criminality typical of the chaotic (mostly post-Communist) societies from which they had come. Those lax migration rules were greatly tightened quite a long time ago, even before the Howard government took office. Indeed some current Howard government practices can reasonably be argued to amount to counterproductive surplus repression. In any event, we can fairly confidently expect that the disproportionate contribution of some ethnic groups to crime rates will wane over time as they gradually become fully assimilated into the Australian community.
So what policies should we be adopting given all this research? Here are my suggestions:
- More and better trained police with better resources.
- Much greater emphasis on diversionary and restorative justice programs for first and second offenders, so that offenders are never sent to prison for short periods.
- A “three strikes and you’re in” law for all property and violence offences, to greatly increase the certainty of punishment for repeat offenders. Offenders would be required to be sentenced to a minimum of 18 months actual imprisonment, although there would need to be a residual judicial discretion for genuinely exceptional cases.
- Harm minimisation approach for drug addiction, so that heroin and other opiate drug addicts are prescribed daily maintenance doses under strict medical supervision. That would hopefully almost eliminate the drug black market and remove any need for addicts to committ property crimes to support their habits.
- Comprehensive attack on Aboriginal disadvantage as outlined in my previous post.
Lastly, Australian governments should be co-operating in undertaking much better focused and resourced research into crime and its causes. As the US Department of Justice study observes (page 107):
Given the lack of knowledge about variation in outcomes and severity of the criminal justice system, potential criminals might perceive that the risks of offending are low. However, little is known in Australia about offending behavior, decision-making and criminal careers. Enhancing knowledge on these issues is crucial to the conduct of research on the deterrent and incapacitative effects of the criminal justice system.
It doesn’t make sense for Australian governments to conduct a law and order auction every election year, without ever bothering in any systematic way to find out what is causing crime or how it can best be reduced.