Crime and Incarceration Rates - Speech, House of Representatives


Twelve-year-old Indigenous boy Dujuan Hoosan has just appealed to members of the United Nations Human Rights Council to reduce Australian incarceration, pointing out that Indigenous-led education and an emphasis on languages are key to keeping Indigenous young people out of jail.

Australia is entering a second convict age, with the highest share of the population incarcerated than at any time since 1899. Since 1985, the incarceration rate has gone up 130 per cent. Now 0.22 per cent of Australian adults are behind bars. Among Indigenous Australians, the incarceration rate is 2.5 per cent. Almost one in four Indigenous men born in the 1970s will go to jail during their lifetime. A higher share of Indigenous Australians are now incarcerated than African Americans.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In the United States, the Pew Public Safety Performance Project has been one of the key factors behind the decline in that country's incarceration rate over the course of the last decade. Pew's project works with states to assess their correctional population and costs, identifying what the numbers will be in five to 10 years without policy reform, and then bringing together the key stakeholders—prosecutors, crime victim advocates, police, sheriffs and other county officials—to participate in open working group meetings and round tables to make sure they vet policy options on an evidence basis.

In Arkansas, that has saved the state $875 million in prison construction. In Texas, it has reduced the predicted $2 billion additional prison expansion the state would otherwise have had to undergo. The crime rate in Texas has fallen to its lowest level since the early 1970s. I commend Pew's Public Safety Performance Project director, Jake Horowitz; and the team: Stephen Saloom, Dana Shoenberg, Michael Williams, Ruth Rosenthal, Terry Schuster, Connie Utada and former director Adam Gelb.

In the United States, what has been critical is that it has been Democrats and Republicans who've worked together. The organisation Right on Crime points out:

Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending. That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety. A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender.

Jerry Madden, the former chair of the Texas House of Representatives Corrections Committee; Jeb Bush; Newt Gingrich; and Edwin Meese are among the signatories to Right on Crime. Prison Fellowship is another conservative organisation in the United States that has campaigned for criminal justice reform.

In Australia, there are important organisations working at the progressive end of the spectrum to point out that incarceration is not the way of tackling all crime problems. I acknowledge Change the Record—particularly Cheryl Axleby and Damien Griffis, who will be in the parliament next week—and David Robertson, a former board member of Amnesty International Australia.

I recognise that there are some on the conservative side of politics in Australia who have pointed to the challenges of rising incarceration. At the Institute of Public Affairs, Andrew Bushnell says: ‘The dramatic increase in incarceration across Australia over the past decade has taken money away from policing and other government services that are vital for community safety.’ Over the past decade, the Institute of Public Affairs points out, ‘incarceration in Australia has grown at an unsustainable rate’.

The crime rate in Australia for most categories of crime has been falling since the mid-1980s. You are half as likely to be a victim of a murder. Car theft rates are down. Robbery rates are down. But those crime rates have not fallen, in large part, as a result of the increase in incarceration. We can ensure that Australia is safer and that we have less crime but also less punishment. For every prisoner behind bars today, there are an average of 1.8 children with an incarcerated parent. Those children will suffer mental anguish. They will do worse at school. They will be more likely to end up on welfare and in crime themselves. For the 43,000 Australian prisoners, there are 77,000 children with a parent behind bars.

We know that half of all released prisoners will become homeless on their release and that eight per cent of prisoners will share needles while in jail. Only 17 per cent of prisoners complete a formal educational qualification, but more than half go on to reoffend, suggesting that our prisons are far more often ‘universities of crime’ than they are universities. With a bipartisan push, we can do better.


Authorised by  Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.