State of imprisonment: lopsided incarceration rates blight West

Premier Colin Barnett addresses a rally outside Parliament House, the latest in a long history of protests at Indigenous deaths in custody and high rates of incarceration. AAP/Newzulu/Jesse Roberts

This article is part of The Conversation’s series, State of Imprisonment, which provides snapshots of imprisonment trends in each state and territory. The intention is to provide a basis for informed public discussion of imprisonment policies and of the costs and consequences for Australia of rising rates of incarceration.

The imprisonment rate in Western Australia (WA) has historically been high, second only to the Northern Territory. While WA is Australia’s largest state, it accounts for 11% of the population. Its prison population is 15% of Australia’s total prison population.

Currently, 265 people per 100,000 adult inhabitants in WA are in prison. This is significantly higher than the national average rate of 186 per 100,000.

Further, while Indigenous people account for only 3% of the WA population, they make up 40% of the prison population. This is the highest over-representation of Indigenous people in Australian prisons – the imprisonment rate is 18 times that of non-Aboriginal adults.

A history of Indigenous over-representation

It is clear that Aboriginal over-representation in the prison population is one of the most critical concerns in the WA penal landscape. This has long historical roots, reflecting the fierce battles between first peoples and the settlers during colonisation.

However, the more recent problem dates from the 1950s and has been linked to the economic development of the north of WA. Many of the cattle stations where Aboriginal people worked were closed or modernised, reducing the need for their labour.

This development, in combination with Indigenous people getting the right to equal wages, resulted in many of them losing their work and their home, leaving their traditional land and lifestyle and moving to the cities. These shifts, together with free access to alcohol, increased Aboriginal contact with the criminal justice system. This created a situation of multiple disadvantages, which have been shown to be linked to increased criminal behaviour, with consequences up to now.

‘Law and order’ politics

Indigenous over-representation does not tell the whole story of WA’s high imprisonment rates. If all people of Aboriginal descent were removed from the calculations, the state’s imprisonment rate would be 167 per 100,000. This is still significantly above the national non-Indigenous rate of 144. So there is more to be told to explain the penal position of WA in comparison with other jurisdictions.

As happened in other Australian jurisdictions, throughout the 1980s WA experienced a growing “law and order” discourse. Politicians from both the left and the right advocated a “tough on crime” approach. There were further examples of such initiatives during the 1990s.

One of these was the introduction of mandatory sentences. This has limited the discretionary powers of the courts by setting a mandatory minimum sentence length for certain offences. Evaluation of the impact of mandatory sentences revealed that not only didn’t they achieve their deterrent effect in a way that prevented further offending, but they were also discriminatory and primarily affected Aboriginal people.

Another example was the introduction of “truth in sentencing” legislation in 2003. This abolished one-third remission of sentences and made access to parole harder. While initially courts were instructed to reduce the fixed term of their sentences to compensate for the abolition of remission, this caution was later repealed to allow for tougher sentences.

Not all political initiatives moved into a punitive direction. On two occasions, the government tried to cut down on the use of short sentences (up to six months) to stop the “revolving door effect”. But in reality, these reforms led to an increase of prison terms imposed on offenders, as well as the actual time they served in prison. This points to the importance of politicians and the judiciary being on one line.

Changes to parole policy

Parole provides for release before the end of the sentence, under certain conditions of supervision, to aid the transition to the free community.

A very significant change occurred in 2009, with the appointment of a new chair of the Parole Board.

While WA used to have a very liberal parole policy, with a rate of release around 90%, this dropped to 21% in the period under the new chair. This, in combination with an increase of cancellations of parole orders, caused a rise of nearly 24% in sentenced prisoners over a period of only eight months.

Is this what the public wants?

One could ask, what is wrong with all of the above if the politicians and judiciary are doing what the public wants? The core question here is if this is the case.

Public opinion research has demonstrated, over and again, that the public is not as punitive as assumed – even less so when given correct and sufficient background information on offending behaviour. More importantly, it has been shown that differences in the levels of confidence in sentencing and the levels of punitiveness across the various states and territories are remarkably small. These can in no way explain the differences in imprisonment rates.

Keeping a person in prison - this one is east of Perth - costs the state an average of $345 a day. Wikimedia Commons

So it is far from certain that Western Australians wants so many people behind bars, and at such cost. The cost of keeping someone in prison is $345 a day, compared with $43 a day to supervise them in community services. Imprisonment is an expensive way to deal with crime.

Further, 61% of the WA prison population has been in prison before, so it doesn’t seem to reduce recidivism a great deal.

Finally, contrary to popular belief, crime rates in WA – as in other jurisdictions – are going down, while imprisonment rates are going up. So it is timely to ask what purpose it serves to have so many people in prison.

This question becomes even more glaring when we know that the prison population is not representative of the general population. It mainly consists of people who come from difficult social and economic backgrounds, and are vulnerable in many ways.

Other solutions are possible, as exemplified by European countries. These generally have much lower imprisonment rates, particularly in Scandinavian countries, as do other Australian jurisdictions.

I am convinced that alternatives to imprisonment are a better use of taxpayers’ money. Imprisonment, as stated by law, should be the option of last resort.

You can read other articles in the series here.