Incarceration at highest level since 1899 - Transcript, ABC Canberra


Subject: New research on Australia’s incarceration rates.

ADRIENNE FRANCIS: You know that of course Australia's states, with the exception of South Australia and Victoria, were first established as penal colonies. It comes as no surprise then that in the 19th century, a large proportion of the adult population were incarcerated. In fact, as many as 6.5 per cent of the adult population in the 1860s were in jail. So what might surprise you is that we currently imprison a greater proportion of adults than at any time since the late 19th century. That's the finding of some research conducted by federal parliamentarian and Member for Fenner Andrew Leigh. He says we're now in a second convict page. Andrew Leigh joins me on the line. Good morning, Andrew. What is the current rate of incarceration in Australia?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY: Good morning, Adrienne. Great to be with you. The current rate of incarceration is 0.2 per cent - so two in 1000 Australians are behind bars. As you say, the highest level since 1899.

FRANCIS: So what have been the longer term trends in its incarceration to get us to this point?

LEIGH: It's interesting. You see a massive drop through the late 19th century, stable through much of the 20th century, and then it’s only around 1985 that Australia's incarceration rate starts to rise. It’s in tandem with what's going on in Britain and New Zealand over that period and in the United States, though the United States has been falling for the most recent decade. And over that period, we've almost doubled the share of the population behind bars. You see it most starkly for Indigenous Australians, where you've now got a situation where 2½ per cent of Indigenous Australians right now are behind bars and where a quarter of Indigenous men born in the 1970s have spent time in jail. So the impact of mass incarceration is felt right across the community, but particularly among indigenous Australians.

FRANCIS: What do you see as some of the drivers then? You've mentioned that it started to increase, the rate of incarceration, in 1985. What was behind that?

LEIGH: There seem to be a number of things. There’s a greater willingness of people to report crimes, a greater willingness of police to move to press charges, a greater willingness of courts to impose custodial sentences. It’s become harder to get bail, and so the share of people who are in jail awaiting trial has gone up substantially. All of those factors have acted together to drive up the incarceration rate. Just looking in our own picture here in the ACT, if you go back to the mid-1980s, we had a third of the share of population in jail than we do now. Partly that's because we opened our own jail, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, in 2008 but even before that you could see the incarceration rate going up here in the ACT.

FRANCIS: And so what are the current figures for our region?

LEIGH: For the ACT, we've got 0.15 per cent of the population in jail. It's one of the lower rates across Australia - only Tasmania is lower - but the increase has been pretty substantial. In fact, in percentage terms, our increase has been bigger than any other jurisdiction since 1985.

FRANCIS: And is there new information there about the rates of incarceration for Indigenous Australians here in the ACT as well, as part of the dataset you've been looking at?

LEIGH: I don’t have the indigenous figures for the ACT in front of me. I certainly do know across Australia, the Indigenous incarceration rates have been going up massively. I mentioned before that 2½ per cent of Indigenous adults are in jail. You also see the experience of encounters with police becoming strikingly common. One extraordinary study from Western Australia, Adrienne, found that if you looked at the Indigenous men born in the 1970s that nine out of 10 of them had been arrested at some point in their lives. So the experience of encounters  with the criminal justice system, arrests or imprisonment has become strikingly commonplace for Indigenous Australians. Indeed we now lock up a higher share of Indigenous Australians than the US locks up of African-Americans.

FRANCIS: What are the costs of these high rates of incarceration that you speak of, both in terms of the financial costs and the social costs?

LEIGH: Imprisoning a prisoner costs about $300 a day. So if you look back at the increased incarceration since the early 1980s, the that impact has been something in the order of $2.6 billion a year. So each of us are paying more than a hundred dollars a year more in taxes in order to keep that additional population locked up. We also know that prison can have a massive impact on deskilling people. It can expose them to significant health risks - 8 per cent of prisoners share needles, 11 per cent say they've being attacked by another prisoner, more than half expect that they'll be homeless when they're released. But there's also the kids. So we've got 43,000 people in jail at the moment and around 77,000 Australian children have an incarcerated parent. And we know that has a significant impact later in life. Kids with a parent behind bars are more likely themselves to go off the rails, it has adverse impacts on their mental wellbeing, their school performance, family income. So there's a poverty impact on the children of prisoners, which we need to bear into account when considering the social cost.

FRANCIS: At 17 minutes past nine, you're listening to Andrew Leigh, federal parliamentarian and Member for Fenner and Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury. We're talking about the worst incarceration rates since 1899, in fact Andrew Leigh’s described them as the second convict age. Quite a statement. How do we compare then to other jurisdictions internationally?

LEIGH: We've got a higher rate now than Canada or the United Kingdom, a little lower than New Zealand which has been rising pretty much in tandem with Australia. We're significantly below the United States, but one of the striking things about the US is that the US has really turned around its incarceration rate over the course of the last decade. They had a point where they actually had more than one per cent of American adults behind bars, around the time of global financial crisis. That's fallen substantially, thanks to reforms that have been pushed both by Democrats and Republicans. The crime rate in the United States has fallen significantly, as it has in Australia for most crimes over this period. And in states like Texas, they've increasingly realised that if you keep on locking up such a huge share of the population, it's impossible for a Republican to run a small government agenda. In fact, mass incarceration means you have a larger role of the government in society. So Republicans have pushed for it for that reason. Democrats have also pushed towards ending mandatory sentences for low level drug offenses, for example.

FRANCIS: So are these are the sorts of lessons that you'd like to see potentially considered here in Australia?

LEIGH: The United States still has significantly higher incarceration rates in Australia. But I think it's important for Australia to have a conversation about the impact of mass incarceration on poverty. I got into this because I've been working on poverty and inequality throughout my adult life. I think understanding mass incarceration is a vital part of getting to grips with the impact of poverty intergenerationally. We know the impact on kids, we know that prisons at their worst can act as a kind of university of crime - breaking social connections with workplaces, friends, building them instead with criminal gangs. So we do need to think about whether this level of incarceration is good for Australia at a time in which we've seen the homicide rate basically halved since the early 1980s, robbery is significantly down, car theft is significantly down. So we've got less crime, but a whole lot more prisoners. And that's something we ought to have more substantial debate about.

FRANCIS: What would you like to see to kind of bring these rates down again?

LEIGH: I think it's important for states and territories to recognise the impact of each of these little marginal changes, which may in themselves have a strong case but collectively add up to a significant social cost. It just doesn't seem to make sense to me that we have a system now where for Gen-X Indigenous men, a quarter have spent time behind bars. That is a startlingly high cost that we're imposing on our First Australians. And that's being felt across a whole range of disadvantaged non-Indigenous communities as well.

FRANCIS; Couple of quick questions from listeners on 0467922666. This one from Jeff – do you have figures on what detainees are actually in jail for? Are drug offences prominent, for example?

LEIGH: The share of detainees who are behind bars for illicit drug offences has gone up a little. The share who are there for car theft and break-and-enter seems to have gone down. We've got an increase in the share of people who are behind bars for some form of assault, and a decrease in the share who are behind bars for homicide. There's also been an interesting trend, the share of prison population who are women has increased markedly and the prison population is significantly older than it was. So that's one of the impacts of the changes that we've seen out of this plethora of law changes.

FRANCIS: Unsigned asks ‘is the increased willingness of people to report domestic violence a factor in increased incarceration rates?’ Any evidence of that?

LEIGH: Yes, I suspect it is and there's been increased willingness of people to report crimes right across the board. I think back to when one of my flatmates in the early 1990s was punched in a bar by a prominent footballer. He didn't even think about reporting it to the police. Today I suspect it would have been caught on a phone camera and the perpetrator would have been reported to police. So we're more willing to report - that's a good thing in my view. This is not a straightforward issue, but we do need to think through how the change in reporting, better policing has played into increased Indigenous incarceration and increased incarceration overall.

FRANCIS: Thank you so much for your time.

LEIGH: Absolute pleasure, Adrienne. Thank you.


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.