In the 18th C Britain struggled to accommodate a growing prison population incarcerated for social reasons, mainly poverty. After the America revolution in 1776, Britain became unable to keep sending its excess prisoners to America. The solution was to establish a prison colony in Australia in 1788. Britain never learnt that incarceration is not a solution for serious social problems. Neither did the USA. Nor for that matter did Australia.
With 130 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 20012/13, Australia had the 15th highest incarceration rate of the OECD countries, far behind the OECD and world leader, the USA (701) and well behind New Zealand (7th, 192) and just behind the United Kingdom (13th, 147).
Incarceration rates have been increasing in many countries in recent decades, including Australia. Rent seekers have had a wonderful time. With 4.4 % of the world’s population the USA has almost 25% of the world’s prison inmates. After Nixon declared a War on Drugs in the early 1970s, the US incarceration rate increased five fold peaking in 2007. As with many other fads, California was an early market leader in the US with conservative Republicans, private prison operators and corrections unions working together, each benefitting enormously. Increasing the number of prisoners, building more prisons, improving the wages and conditions of prison guards and expanding the private prison sector worked well at the ballot box as long as voters could continue to be convinced that crime was a serious and ever growing threat. In an era when taxation revenues have been steadily falling, funding extra police, courts and prison costs never seemed a problem. California discovered that cutting higher education could pay for its law and order policies. No one seemed to mind or even notice. The taxpayer even picked up the tab for this electoral Magic Pudding.
All good things come to an end. Eventually. US incarceration rates started declining 7-8 years ago. Now President Obama, supported by politicians from across the political spectrum, has made it clear that he wants to end America’s jails and prisons binge. In an important 45 minute speech1 on criminal justice policy in Philadelphia on 14 July to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), Obama reminded his audience of the huge gap between the vision of Amertica’s ‘founding [fathers] that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights’ with ‘the realities that we live each and every day’. Obama noted that the aims of the NAACP had moved from ending lynching to ending the now more subtle forms of bigotry and gross disparities in opportunity. He reminded his audience that ‘since my first campaign, I’ve talked about how, in too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails.’ Obama noted that ‘We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined’. Increasing from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million today. [The number of correctional inmates] ‘has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone’. He went on to argue that the main factor driving up the US prison population has been the steadily increasing number of nonviolent drug offenders locked up for longer and longer periods. As Obama observed, the shocking disproportionality of US prison sentences also ended up costing taxpayers $80 billion/year – a sum that he said ‘could pay for universal preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America, or a doubling of the salary of every high school teacher in America or investment in new roads, bridges and airports, job training programs, and research and development’. For the cost of keeping ‘everyone locked up for one year’, Obama said ‘we could eliminate tuition at every single one of our public colleges and universities’.
Minorities in the USA have paid a tragically high price for this binge on incarceration. As Obama noted ‘African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our population; they make up 60 percent of our inmates. About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now. Among white men, that number is one in 214’.
But nothing lasts forever. Obama observed that ‘for the first time in 40 years, America’s crime rate and incarceration rate both went down at the same time’ last year. He supporting increased investment in communities to reduce crime, increased judicial discretion, greater use of non-custodial sentencing options and prison reform.
Many fads start in California and then spread to the rest of the USA and then to the rest of the world. America has now woken up to the huge social and financial cost of its addiction to incarceration. But like many other addictions, getting this addiction under control takes time and a lot of energy and motivation.
NSW recently broke though the 12,000 inmate barrier. More than 30,000 Australians will go to sleep in a prison cell tonight, no doubt some for very good reason. It’s high time Australian political parties agreed to abandon the Laura Norder debate and work together to reduce our prison population. Prisons should only be used as a last resort. And offenders should be sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment.
Dr Alex Wodak AM is President, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation