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Prison rates down, but not enough

Australia’s prison population is decreasing. But it’s a little too early to break out the champagne. The huge regional differences reveal that imprisonment is not based on the crime you commit, but the…

It costs $207 a day to keep one prisoner in jail. Flickr/winterofdiscontent

Australia’s prison population is decreasing. But it’s a little too early to break out the champagne. The huge regional differences reveal that imprisonment is not based on the crime you commit, but the preferences of your local politicians.

The latest statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that 4% fewer people are locked up now than last year.

At first sight, this finally looks like some good news, as the general trend since the mid-eighties has been one of relentlessly rising imprisonment rates. But we need to take stock of the mad ride we have been on over this period in which the number of people behind bars increased exponentially from 86 per 100,000 adult population in 1984 to 165 in 2011.

A costly and unequal policy

And it’s an expensive business: according to the Productivity Commission, the real net operating expenditure per prisoner per day was $207 in 2009-10. There seems to have been no brake on the enthusiasm for imprisonment and it has sometimes been argued that rich western countries like Australia simply imprison as much as they do because they can.

And there seems to be no substantial sign of good news on one of the most important and intractable problems in regard to imprisonment in Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners remain grossly over-represented making up a quarter (26%) of all prisoners while they only constitute 2% of the total Australian population.

Australia is not alone in this dangerous imprisonment spending spree - we are part of a global wave spreading across most of the developed world with only a few exceptions.

Around the world

The US is the unconquerable winner of this race: the rate of imprisonment in the US has increased seven fold since 1973 and stands at present at 743 per 100,000 of the total population. From here on we will use this more standard measure of imprisonment rates which uses total population as the denominator (and not just adult population).

Increases have also been substantial in other Anglo-Saxon countries such as England and Wales (152), and New Zealand (199). The Australian rate when measured per 100,000 population is 128.

Although there have also been increases in imprisonment in several mainland European jurisdictions, their imprisonment rates fluctuate around 100 and remain relatively stable (France: 102, Belgium 97), or are even decreasing (Germany 85). The Netherlands are a particularly interesting case as they witnessed a rapid increase of their imprisonment rates over the last decades - from a rate of 49 in 1992 up to 123 in 2004 - but recently experienced a significant fall of their prison numbers (decline to 94). This resulted in overcapacity in their prisons, which they have rented out to accommodate Belgian prisoners; haven’t they always been smart traders, these Dutch men?

Further, the Scandinavian countries remain the poster child in this field managing to keep their prison populations consistently low (Finland 59, Sweden 78) even in our current era characterised by punitive populism.

These differences clearly demonstrate that imprisonment rates are not just a fait accompli, but that they result out of choices, made at several levels of the criminal justice process.

What is the point of prison?

So it is time to ask ourselves – and our governments - what do we have to show for it? Or how effective is our imprisonment policy? Although crime rates are also going down, can this drop in volume crime be attributed to the enthusiasm to put people behind bars?

Over the last decade, and in reaction to David Garlands’ publication of the “Culture of Control” (2001), in which he analyses crime control and criminal justice system in the UK/US over the last 30 years, various wise people have looked into this question.

There seems to be a consensus that imprisonment rates vary independently from crime rates, and that in many countries the increases in the prison population have started during a period of sustained decrease in crime rates, or when crime rates remained stable.

So, if this is the case, what can explain this extraordinary expenditure of public funds on a somewhat medieval remedy to the many and varied forms of crime in modern society?

According to many scholars focusing on this issue over the past decade, higher imprisonment rates can be linked to a combination of the following variables: the lack of a strong welfare model; a bi-partisan political model; a common law system; fear of crime; lack of trust in the government and; the presence of minorities who are considered as being problematic.

Regional differences

While one could state that some of these characteristics apply to Australia, why then are there such differences between the states? How is it that, according to the most recent figures, the Northern Territory ends up with an imprisonment rate of 719, Western Australia with 262, New South Wales with 179, while this is only 105 in Victoria?

The states in Australia appear to reflect in microcosm the variety of imprisonment rates observed across the rest of the developed world bearing no particular relation to underlying crime rates but rather policy preferences.

The way ahead

So where do we go from here? Interesting in that respect is the recent popularity of Justice Reinvestment initiatives, originating in the US, and using the funds that are normally spent on imprisoning people, to improve local services addressing the underlying causes of crime.

This might be worth considering and has clearly caught the imagination of many who are pushing for meaningful improvements in this area.

At the very least we should be asking whether we are getting value for money out of imprisonment when it comes to preventing crime, presumably its primary justification.

We need to perhaps review the “open cheque book” approach and look at what we get as a return on our investment.

However outrage over crime means that there will never be any shortage of demand for imprisonment. It then becomes a question of restraint.

But selling the benefits of that in today’s heady emotive media-dominated political environment, provides the proverbial challenge of selling refrigerators to Eskimos.