Indigenous Australians perhaps most incarcerated people on earth - Transcript, ABC News Radio


Subject: New research on Australia’s incarceration rates.

SARAH HALL: More Australians than ever before are in prison, with Indigenous Australians now more likely to be in prison than African Americans. That's according to a new report out by federal Labor MP and economist, Andrew Leigh. The Member for Fenner has found that since 1985, the Australian incarceration rate increased by 130 per cent, while the share of Indigenous adults in prison has more than doubled. For more on these findings, I’m joined by Dr Leigh in Canberra. Dr Leigh, thanks for joining us.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY: Pleasure, Sarah. Great to be talking with you.

HALL: Can you please break down these figures for us. What stood out to you the most?

LEIGH: Well, not since 1899 has Australia had such a large share of population in jail. The incarceration rate has been rising significantly since the 1980s, despite the fact that crime has been falling. You’re half as likely to be murdered now as you were in the 1980s, and the rates of robbery, car theft and assault have gone down markedly. But as a result of changes in policing practices and sentencing practices, a higher share of Australians are behind bars. 0.2 per cent of all adults are incarcerated, and 2½ per cent of Indigenous adults are incarcerated.

HALL: There have been multiple inquiries and hundreds of recommendations into this issue, including the ‘87 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. So why have we seen an increase in Indigenous incarceration?

LEIGH: The police are more likely to press charges. Courts are more likely to impose a custodial sentence. Those sentences are longer, and while awaiting trial you're more likely to be behind bars than you are to be out on bail. Each of those changes have been implemented for well-intentioned reasons, but the result is that mass incarceration is now a serious problem for Australia. Among Indigenous Australian men born in the 1970s, almost one in four have spent time behind bars. And so we've now got a situation where Indigenous Australians are perhaps the most incarcerated people on earth. This has significant implications for joblessness, for closing the gaps, and also for the families of those who are incarcerated. A typical prisoner has 1.8 children, which means that for the 43,000 prisoners we have in Australia today, there's 77,000 Australian children with a parent behind bars - children who’ll suffer the mental anguish, the impact on their school performance, the impact on their family poverty of having an incarcerated parent.

HALL: Well, if there's been an increase in Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners as per this report, are we actually seeing an increase in crime as well?

LEIGH: We're seeing a decrease in most categories of crime, and that's a decrease that seems to be largely due to factors that don't have much to do with the incarceration rate - improvements in car security technologies, changes in the amount of lead that’s in petrol, changes in the labour market situation have driven the fall in crime that we've seen in Australia over the course of the last generation. But at the same time, changes in policing practices and in laws such as mandatory sentencing have seen more and more people being incarcerated.

HALL: So how does our incarceration rate compare with other countries?

LEIGH: It's higher now than Britain or Canada, a little lower the New Zealand and still markedly lower than the United States. The difference with the United States, Sarah, is they've seen a fall in their incarceration rate over the last decade while we've seen a rise. In Republican states like Texas and Democratic states like California, there's been a significant reduction in incarceration as Americans have recognised that the policies they have pursued just aren't working for them. In Australia, we haven't had that sort of conversation. That's one of my hopes in writing this study, to draw attention to the fact that if you really care about poverty and disadvantage in Australia today, we have to confront the fact that the incarceration rate is the highest that it's been in 120 years.

HALL: Well, what about women? Are we seeing more instances of more women being put in prison?

LEIGH: Yes. So almost doubling of the share of women behind bars over the course of the last generation. Our prison population used to be overwhelmingly young white men. Increasingly now there's more indigenous people, the prison population is older. There's more grey-haired people behind bars as a result of longer sentence lengths, and there's more women being incarcerated. People are going to jail now for events for acts that would have led to a non-custodial sentence in the mid-1980s.

HALL: Victoria's coroner has today begun a public inquest which will consider whether racism was a factor in the death of Indigenous woman Tanya Day. Do you think that there is an element of racism in how we incarcerate and sentence Indigenous Australians?

LEIGH: The best research that's been done on this is Lucy Snowball and Don Weatherburn’s study, which held constant the background of offenders and found that there didn't appear to be a difference in the sentences handed down to Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders. I suspect what's happened instead is that the changes that have been put in place affected Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, but Indigenous Australians were already overrepresented in the 1980s and are now bearing the brunt of these changes. So we have a situation where, for example in Western Australia, one study found that among Indigenous men born in the 1970s, nine out of 10 had been arrested, charged or summonsed by their 30th birthday.

HALL: And just finally, Dr Leigh, according to your research Australian incarceration rate is increased by 130 percent. So what do you think needs to change?

LEIGH: We need to have a community conversation about the impact of mass incarceration on Australian social disadvantage. This is enormously expensive. The rise in incarceration since the mid-1980s costs every Australian $140 a year. But it's also got an impact on the children of parents who are behind bars, for prisoners themselves, half of whom say they’re likely to be homeless when they get out of jail. So if we want to be a country that fulfils our egalitarian dream, that gives people a second chance, and believes that criminality isn't hereditary but is something that is something that can be dealt with a the social policies, then we need to assess the policies that have led to the highest incarceration rate in 120 years.

HALL: Dr Leigh, thanks for your time.

LEIGH: Thank you, Sarah.


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.