Australian politicians lock more people up, for longer

May 7, 2024
Prison cell with rays of light from the window.

Criminal justice is an area of public policy where the disconnect between evidence based solutions and political responses is depressingly wide. And it is getting worse as both the ALP and the conservative parties respond to what is fast becoming saturation media about, in particular, family or domestic violence and youth crime.

Some of this media attention is intelligent and focused on solutions, but some equally alarmist and fuelling community angst and simplistic and counterproductive law and order approaches by governments.

Last Saturday’s Australian reported that a “poll of 1208 voters across every state and territory revealed 73 per cent of Australians believe penalties for youth crime are too soft, and only 5 per cent saying they are too tough. Ahead of the Queensland election in October, 86 per cent of voters in the state believe youth crime penalties are too soft.” As always with this issue ‘soft’ means not enough going to jail or youth detention.

The same poll found that nationally, “[f]or the first time in recent years, crime is now the third-most important concern behind cost of living (69 per cent) and housing affordability (36 per cent).”

Yet at the same time as one senses we are in middle of another depressing law and order campaign where both the Labor and the conservatives seek to outdo each other on who can take the gold medal for punitiveness, our jails are reflecting the failure of the suite of ‘tough on crime’ policies which governments have introduced in recent years to woo voters. They include mandatory sentencing, making bail less accessible, and locking up more youth offenders.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) latest data, released in November last year, tells this story. “Over the decade to 2022, Australia’s prison population increased in number and as a proportion of the population. Despite a slight drop recently, the average daily prison population grew from almost 29,400 at 30 June 2012 to around 40,600 at 30 June 2022,” says the AIHW. And, it says, over “the same period, the imprisonment rate increased from 167 to 201 per 100,000 adults.” Over 40% of those in prison are there for sexual assaults and crimes of violence.

When you drill into these numbers you see the moral bankruptcy of pursuing so called tough on crimes policies. The AIHW reports that 32% of the prison population is Indigenous; that almost 2 in 3 prisoners are under 39, and that only 20% had completed Year 12. And of course, confirming that prison is a scandalous waste of taxpayer dollars, the AIHW says that 2 in 3 prisoners had been there before and a staggering 2 in 5 within the last 12 months.

As the Justice Reform Initiative (JRI) slogan says, “Jailing is Failing.” I am a patron of the JRI, founded and headed by former federal Aboriginal Affairs minister Robert Tickner. If politicians listened to it, and other experts like RMIT University’s Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ) headed by former Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls, alongside lived experience former prisoners, they would understand that the clamour for tougher bail laws and longer jail terms does not keep the community safe.

Take youth offending. The Queensland Labor government, desperate to win an election this year, last week announced that detention was no longer the last resort for youth! You read it correctly. It is a return to the 19th century, literally. As the JRI’s Director Dr Mindy Sitori said of the ‘plan’; “Locking up children is already costing Queensland taxpayers over $218 million per year, while a new 80-bed youth detention centre to cater for the overflow will cost more than $600 million in building costs alone.” And as she rightly pointed out, the “punitive approach is failing Queenslanders on every front – creating a backlog in the court system, dangerous overcrowding in detention centres and an overflow into adult watchhouses that continues to violate the basic human rights, safety and wellbeing of children as young as 10.”

The same comments can be made about every Australian jurisdiction in relation to the issue of youth offending. You are ensuring that those detained will end up graduating to the adult prison environment.

When it comes to family or domestic violence the noises being made by politicians, egged on by some of the media, is to jail more perpetrators for longer, and for those who are alleged to have offended, ensure as few as possible get bail.

As far back as 2015 the CIJ released a sensible blueprint for greater and smarter interaction between the criminal justice system and family violence offenders which included, “treatment for alcohol abuse of mental health issues that might need to be addressed in order for them to address their violence, including crisis accommodation when they are removed from the home to stop them from slipping off the radar.” The need for intensive judicial monitoring is also another recommendation so that alleged perpetrators who are on bail have to return to court much more regularly than for some other offences.

But this is a nation which was, and remains, infected with the law and order populism virus that made its way across the Pacific from the United States in the early 1980s. Why not resort to curfews, filling the jails and then building more, brutalising children in detention, and calling out as “soft” anyone who rationally points out that statistics like those produced by the AIHW demonstrate the dangerous stupidity of chasing votes at whatever cost approach in this area of policy. The current clamour for punitiveness by politicians and the media, whether it be in relation to family violence, youth justice or knife crime, is not only counter productive, it represents ignorance triumphing over knowledge.

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