TRIPLE J HACK
MONDAY, 26 AUGUST 2019
Subject: New research on Australia’s incarceration rates.
AVANI DIAS: You probably know that when Australia was first colonised, the UK transported thousands of convicts here to serve out sentences for their crimes. Well it turns out Australia's back to where it was in that time. In fact, a new report has found we're entering a second convict age and that's despite a drop in crime rates. Perhaps the worst part of this report is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are now more likely to be imprisoned than African-Americans. Federal Labor's Andrew Leigh wrote this research. He's also an economist and he's with us now. Andrew, Australia's incarceration rate is at the highest level in 120 years. Why is that?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY: Avani, it's more likely now that police will press charges, that judges will impose a custodial sentence. Compared with the mid-1980s, that custodial sentence will be longer, and that while you are awaiting trial, you likely won't be out on bail, you will be behind bars. So we've had a whole lot of tweaks to the law, which have together caused our incarceration rate to go through the roof. What's striking about this is it's come at a time in which crime rates have fallen. The murder rate’s now half what it was in the 1980s. Car theft is down. Robbery rates are down. But incarceration rates are substantially up.
DIAS: Andrew, you're an economist, but you're also on the Labor frontbench and you say government policies have led to this rise. So what are you doing to combat this?
LEIGH: Well, part of it is drawing attention to the policies that have been put in place-
DIAS: So what policies need to change?
LEIGH: Well, it's largely a state and territory issue. States and territories in imposing higher mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines have contributed to a growing incarceration rate. We know now two and a half per cent of Indigenous adults are behind bars. In Western Australia it's more than four per cent of Indigenous adults are locked up, and the experience of incarceration has become increasingly normal-
DIAS: I do want to know, sorry to interrupt, about the government response though because a lot of governments around the country including some Labor governments are making things a lot harsher in terms of penalties. They've been several royal commissions and recommendations aren’t implemented, like in the NT for example. So what needs to change here?
LEIGH: I think we need to start seeing mass incarceration as being a problem rather than just throwing up our hands and saying that it's inevitable. The fact is we can have lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates. We’re now at a stage where we're incarcerating more people than we need to in order to keep crime rates down. That's going to impact on kids as well. Each prisoner has almost two children, and so that means there's 77,000 Australian children who will go to bed tonight with a parent locked up. That has an impact on their mental wellbeing, their school performance, on their experience of poverty. So seeing the system as a whole rather than just these individual changes is what I'm really pushing towards.
DIAS: There is often a sentiment in the community, and among politicians as you say, to be tough on crime and that's the kind of reaction to reduce crime rates. What do you say to those people?
LEIGH: We need to be smart on crime. We need to recognise that the United States has had a falling incarceration rate over the course of the last decade and a falling crime rate at the same time. If you lock people up and don't put in place good educational programs, what you're exposing them to is a ‘university of crime’ in which we're likely to see people increasingly disconnected from the formal labour market, more likely to fall into the wrong crowd. Incarceration is costing Australia billions of dollars more than it should, because every night behind bars costs around $300 a person. So this isn't smart in fiscal terms, and it's certainly not smart in social terms if we want to address social disadvantage.
DIAS: All right. Andrew Leigh, Labor frontbencher and economist. Thank you so much for your time
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.