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When Brute Force Fails

I spoke on the adjournment debate about how to have less crime and less punishment.

Crime and Punishment, 19 March 2013

The issue of reducing crime and incarceration is one that is close to my heart. Shayne Neumann, the member for Blair, and I moved a motion in 2011 in this House aimed at reducing crime and incarceration. The motion pointed out that over recent decades Australia has invested in prison building at an astonishing rate. The national imprisonment rate in 1991 was 117 prisoners per 100,000 adults. By 2007 it had risen to 167 prisoners per 100,000 adults. Over the same period, a period which began with the royal commission into black deaths in custody in 1991, the level of Indigenous incarceration went up from 1,739 prisoners per 100,000 adults to 2,248 prisoners out of every 100,000 Indigenous adults. In Western Australia, four per cent of all Indigenous adults are currently in jail. Even adjusting for the age structure of the Indigenous population, Indigenous Australians are still 14 times more likely to be jailed than non-Indigenous people. By their mid-20s, 40 per cent of Indigenous men have been charged by police with a crime.

It was my pleasure, with the support of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, to host a lunchtime event in Parliament House on 26 February with UCLA professor Mark Kleiman. Prof. Kleiman is the author of When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment. The event brought together a range of criminologists and social policy researchers from the ACT and beyond. I would like to acknowledge Don Weatherburn from the New South Wales the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research who bought Prof. Kleiman to Australia. I would also like to acknowledge Michael Thorn and Glenis Thomas from FARE for their support of the event.

Prof. Kleiman’s clear message is that punishment is always a cost and never a benefit. He points out that too much emphasis among policy makers over recent decades has been on the duration of the sentence, the severity of the punishment and not enough on the issues of certainty and swiftness. Particularly when you are dealing with young men who are living day-to-day, the notion that increasing sentences from 10 to 20 years will have a major impact on behaviour does not take into account the population with which we are dealing. Policies such as Western Australia’s three strikes law simply do not take into account the importance of certainty versus severity.

I commend many of those policy makers who are thinking rigorously about this issue including the Attorney-General, who happens to be in that chamber at the moment; Western Australian MLA Paul Papalia; New South Wales Attorney-General, Greg Smith; South Australian Attorney-General, John Rau; and ACT Attorney-General, Simon Corbell.

I think it is high time that we took the lesson from economist Thomas Schelling, who has pointed out that the perfect threat is one that you do not carry out. We could make greater use of GPS monitoring to ensure that offenders are monitored but not incarcerated because the cost of incarceration is now nearly $300 a day—the price of a nice hotel room in the CBD. We might make better use of curfews, a punishment which not only hurts offenders but also ensures when the young man looks at his watch at nine o’clock at night and says he has to go home from the party that other partygoers get the message too. We need to have more evidence based policy making in criminal justice. Mark Kleiman talked about Project HOPE, Hawaii’s Opportunity Program with Enforcement. In Australia we have the New South Wales Drug Court trial as almost the sole randomised controlled trial of a criminal justice program.

We know it is important to raise the evidence bar. There is clear evidence that jails are expensive and that they are unhealthy. The drivers of increased incarceration have not been greater crime in Australia — in fact, crime on many indicators has fallen — but changes in the law, tougher bail conditions, mandatory non-parole periods and longer sentences. It is not beyond the wit of parliamentarians on both sides of politics to find solutions to reduce crime and reduce punishment. I thank Prof. Kleiman and those who brought him here for adding to the quality of the debate.

2 Comments

  1. John Brookes says:

    Well said. Harsher punishment is used to placate the electorate after the horse has bolted. I recently read an article where New York’s low incarceration rate was attributed to more effective policing. In a nutshell, if you make it harder to commit crimes (mainly by targeting your police at high crime areas), then crime falls. Apparently it doesn’t just move to another location, because the conditions necessary for crime to flourish are not that easy to find.

  2. Richie B says:

    Well put. The most amazing change i ever saw in an individual was being placed on random drug/alcohol testing while on parole. The guy became sober and .. relatively normal. Most prisoners/criminals have drug/alcohol issues and the forced sobriety of prison is one of the few positive impacts of imprisonment.