LOCKING SOMEONE UP COSTS AROUND $300 A DAY OR ABOUT $110,000 A YEAR, The Canberra Times, 14 November 2016
You might not know it to watch the news, but on many measures, Australia is becoming safer. In the past two decades, the murder rate has fallen by one-third. The rate of armed robberies has dropped by one-third. Car theft is down by two-thirds.
And yet while crime is falling, our prison population is rising at an alarming rate. In June, 38,685 people were in jail. At the current pace, the prison population will soon pass 40,000. If our jail population were a city, it would be the 36th-largest city in Australia – larger than Albany, Bathurst or Devonport.
As a share of population, I estimate that Australia now jails 207 in every 100,000 adults. That's a higher incarceration rate than in most other nations. To take just a few examples, imprisonment rates in Australia are higher than those in Canada, Japan, France, India, Germany, Indonesia or Britain.
Curious to know how the current lock-up rate compares with Australia's past, I dusted off some old statistical volumes and started comparing the figures. I was shocked to discover that the last time our incarceration rate was this high was 1901.
Naturally, one of the reasons our imprisonment rate was high back then is that we imported prisoners from Britain until 1868. So today, our imprisonment rate is as high as it has been since Federation, a time when we were still in the shadows of the convict transportation era.
As our jails grow, the impact is felt particularly by Indigenous Australians. A young Indigenous Australian man is now more likely to go to jail than university. Because of this, federal Labor has argued that one of the Closing the Gap targets should be to reduce Indigenous incarceration and victimisation rates.
Rising incarceration has many causes. Some states jail fine defaulters, such as 22-year-old Indigenous woman Ms Dhu, who died in a West Australian police lock-up while serving time in lieu of a $1000 fine. Other jurisdictions impose mandatory sentences, such as the case of a 16-year-old with one prior conviction who received a 28-day prison sentence for stealing a bottle of spring water. Cuts to legal aid have also made it harder for defendants to make their case in court. Up to a certain point, increased incarceration rates help to cut crime. Dangerous predators should be off the streets, and victims have a right to feel safe. But there's little evidence that rising prison populations have been a major driver of the crime drop since the mid-1990s.
We also have to recognise that jails can send people down the wrong path – severing employment ties and social connections, and serving as "crime universities". There are around 40,000 Australian children who have a parent behind bars.
Prisons also cost the community a bomb. Locking up a prisoner costs around $300 a day, or $110,000 a year. In total, Australia spends more than $3 billion a year on our jails. In recent years, the amount we spend on jails has been growing about twice as fast as spending on student assistance schemes such as Youth Allowance and Austudy.
In the US, where nearly 1 per cent of adults are behind bars, a bipartisan movement to cut incarceration is gathering pace. In a joint op-ed, Democrat economist Jason Furman and Republican Douglas Holtz-Eakin argue that the additional prisoners now tend to be non-violent offenders whose imprisonment will have little impact on the crime rate. The two economists point out that while a father is in jail, the chances of his family falling into poverty rise by 40 per cent. Prisoners develop criminal networks, and cut their chances of holding a regular job upon release.
Australians have a right to expect that the most dangerous offenders will be locked up, and violent criminals pay their debt to society. But for non-violent offenders, we have to be smart about how we punish people. Among the answers should be better use of monitoring technology, smarter approaches than mandatory sentencing and decent funding for legal aid. At the last federal election, Labor proposed a Fine Enforcement Collection scheme, enabling states and territories to recover unpaid fines using the tax system rather than incarceration.
Smart on crime isn't soft on crime. Putting aside Donald Trump's yammering, mainstream US Democrats and Republicans recognise that it's possible to cut crime and save money. With government budgets under pressure across Australia, does it really make sense to be paying to lock up fine defaulters?
With the incarceration rate at a 115-year high, it's time to rethink whether jailing more low-risk offenders passes the cost-benefit test. With falling crime and rising imprisonment, we are wasting your money and our people.
Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. This Opinion Piece was first published in The Canberra Times on Monday, 14 November 2016.