MONDAY, 26 AUGUST 2019
Subject: New research on Australia’s incarceration rates.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I think we've got Andrew Leigh now, welcome.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY: Thanks, great to be with you.
KARVELAS: You just completed a research paper which identifies what you are calling disturbingly a second convict age. Take me through what you found and why you used that language? Because that’s quite alarming.
LEIGH: It is, Patricia, and so are the figures. Incarceration rates in Australia haven't been this high since 1899, in the tail end of the transportation era. We now have 0.2 per cent of adults in jail, but for Indigenous Australians, it is 2.5 per cent of adults behind bars. That’s up from 1 per cent when the Aboriginal deaths in custody report came out in 1991. And as you said in your introduction, it means Indigenous Australians are now perhaps the most incarcerated people on earth with an incarceration rate that exceeds that for African-Americans. If you look at the exposure over a lifetime since - an Indigenous man born in the 1970s has one in four chances of spending time behind bars. Research out of Western Australia suggests that as many as nine out of 10 Indigenous men born in the 1970s have been arrested, summonsed or charged in their lifetime. So increasingly, incarceration is becoming a normal life event for Indigenous Australians and that is having massively damaging impacts on our attempts to close the gap.
KARVELAS: As we just said, for the first time the proportion of Indigenous Australians incarcerated has surpassed the proportion of African-Americans incarcerated in the United States. Why is it such a significant comparison for you? Why is that particular comparison one you think is noteworthy and for our governments to consider at a deeper level?
LEIGH: Well, the United States has always been the world leader in incarceration and that particularly so over the course of the last generation. African-Americans are incarcerated at a higher rate than white Americans. But we’ve seen in the United States the incarceration rate falling for African-Americans, white Americans and Hispanic Americans due to a bipartisan coalition – Republicans wanting to save money, Democrats wanting to turn lives around. There’s been a significant reduction in incarceration rates in Texas, California and New York. At the same time in Australia, you have seen rising incarceration rates right around the country. Whether it is here in the ACT, NSW, Northern Territory, Western Australia - all of these places have seen significant rises in incarceration since 1985. And that's despite the fact that crime has fallen. You are half as likely to be murdered now as you were in the mid-1980s. You’re two-thirds less likely to have your car stolen. Robbery rates are down, assault rates are down, and yet there are more people locked up than ever before in Australian history.
KARVELAS: You described the results as coming from governments making particular choices and particularly toughening bail laws, but those changes were often made in response to violent crimes committed by people on bail. How do you strike the right balance?
LEIGH: I think that’s exactly the right question to ask, Patricia. Each of these law changes could be justified in their own right. Police are now more likely to press charges, courts are more likely to impose custodial sentences. Those sentences tend to be longer, and while awaiting trial, people are less likely to be out on bail, more likely to be behind bars. The net effect is we now have 43,000 Australians behind bars and that affects not just them, but also their families. That means there are 77,000 Australian children with an incarcerated parent - children who will suffer mental anguish, who will do worse at school, who’ll be more likely to fall into poverty as a result of having a parent behind bars. I got into this research because I care about poverty and inequality. And increasingly, I think you can't address deep social disadvantage in Australia unless you wrestle with the fact we are locking up a larger share of the population than ever before. It’s not as though being in jail is a chance to turn your life around. Most people who go to jail are back within a couple of years. Less than a fifth get a formal educational qualification. Too often, prison ends up being a university of crime, rather than a place where people improve their formal skills.
KARVELAS: So in that sense, going to the refresh – because right now, there is a refresh of the closing the gap targets, of course, Indigenous incarceration rates have been long-on the agenda as perhaps joining those already existing targets. Do you think it is time to have that as a formal target? How would governments work towards reducing that disparity?
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.