We need to be smart, not soft, on crime - Speech, House of Representatives


I move:

That this House:

(1) recognises that:

(a) Australia's incarceration rate has now risen to 0.22 percent, the highest level since Federation;

(b) rates of homicide, robbery, car theft and assaults have fallen considerably since the mid-1980s, while the imprisonment rate has more than doubled;

(c) the direct cost of prisons is almost $5 billion per year; and

(d) there is a significant indirect cost of prisons, including the impact on the 77,000 children who have an incarcerated parent, adverse effects on the physical and mental wellbeing of inmates, and high rates of homelessness and joblessness among ex-prisoners;

(2) acknowledges that:

(a) the Indigenous incarceration rate is now 2.5 percent, the highest level on record;

(b) the Indigenous incarceration rate is now over twice as high as when the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was delivered;

(c) among Indigenous men born in the 1970s, 23 percent have spent time in prison;

(d) the Indigenous incarceration rate exceeds the incarceration rate among African-Americans; and

(e) Noel Pearson has described Indigenous Australians as 'the most incarcerated people on earth';

(3) notes that in:

(a) the United States (US), a bipartisan reform coalition at the state level has led to a substantial reduction in that nation's imprisonment rate over the past decade, with conservative groups such as Right on Crime joining with centrist reformers such as the Pew Charitable Trust's Public Safety and Performance Project to reduce incarceration in states such as Alabama, Texas and South Carolina; and

(b) 2018, President Trump signed the 'First Step Act', which reduces the US federal prison population by expanding compassionate release and increasing credits for good behaviour; and

(4) calls on the Government to:

(a) work with the states and territories to adopt justice targets under the Closing the Gap framework, so that the inequality in justice outcomes can be properly highlighted and to address unacceptable levels of incarceration among First Nations peoples;

(b) require the Australian Institute of Criminology to project levels of incarceration (and fiscal costs) in 10 years' time in the absence of meaningful policy reform; and

(c) engage states and territories in an data-driven conversation—drawing together victims' rights groups, prosecutors, and criminal justice experts—to identify the policies that are most effective to reduce crime and imprisonment.

Prison has an important role to play in incapacitating those who might do the community harm, in deterring those who might contemplate doing the wrong thing and in rehabilitating those who have done the wrong thing. But, in an era in which crime is falling, in which you are half as likely to be a victim of murder as you were in the 1980s, in which robbery rates and motor vehicle thefts are down, Australia is building a lot more prisons. Prisons are expensive and prisoners are expensive. States are currently scheduled to spend billions of dollars constructing new prisons, and housing every prisoner costs over $300 a day. That is more than the cost of a five-star hotel room in a big city.

Since 1985, the incarceration rate in Australia has risen from 96 prisoners per 100,000 adults to 221 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 2018. Among Indigenous Australians, the incarceration rate has risen from one per cent in 1990 to 2.5 per cent today. In Western Australia, the incarceration rate exceeds four per cent of adults, meaning that more than one in 25 Indigenous Western Australian adults are currently behind bars. That's only a snapshot at a particular point in time. If you look at Indigenous men of my generation, a quarter will spend time in jail.

Recently the Indigenous incarceration rate exceeded the African American incarceration rate for the first time, leading Noel Pearson to describe Indigenous Australians as the most incarcerated people on earth. That's why Labor supports an additional Closing the Gap target of incarceration.

As they go to bed tonight, 77,000 Australian children will be without a parent because 77,000 Australian children have a parent behind bars. Those children are more likely to suffer mental health problems, are more likely to experience behavioural problems at school and are more likely to themselves engage in crime and be incarcerated. There is an intergenerational cycle that comes with incarceration. We know that around half of those who are incarcerated will be homeless upon release, that eight per cent say that they shared needles while in jail and that 11 per cent say that they were attacked by another prisoner while in jail.

There is another approach to ever-increasing incarceration in the face of declining crime rates. Ironically, Australia can learn from the most incarcerated country on earth—the United States. Since 2007, the US incarceration rate has fallen 11 per cent. Some 35 states have reformed criminal justice policies through justice reinvestment, working with bodies such as the Pew Public Safety Performance Project and the Council on Criminal Justice. These are Republican states and Democrat states. They include Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas. The reforms include reclassifying and redefining drug offences, revising mandatory minimums, establishing parole board member qualifications, improving electronic monitoring, capping revocation time, piloting specialty courts, requiring fiscal impact statements on expenditure on prisons, improving data collection, and establishing an oversight council.

I commend the reformers in the United States, including Republican Jerry Madden from Right on Crime, for their willingness to discuss with Australians the lessons of that country's system. Last week the Ninth International Criminal Justice Conference was held in Melbourne. It included Adam Gelb, the President and CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice in the United States, speaking about the lessons that can be learnt from a country that has sought to make its streets safer and reduce expenditure on incarceration. In Australia I pay tribute to David Robertson, John Paget, Rick Sarre, Andrew Bushnell, Arie Freiberg, Mark Finnane and Adam Graycar, among many others, who have worked tirelessly to ensure that we have evidence based criminal justice policy.

This is not about being soft on crime. This is about being smart on crime, reducing the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration, and increasing the effectiveness of our criminal justice policy. There is no reason why Australia cannot have safer streets and closed prisons while saving taxpayers resources and at the same time improving the wellbeing of those who would otherwise be incarcerated.


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.