Comment

Prisons trap our money along with crooks

Things may be gloomy in other countries, and even in parts of our own economy, but there's one aspect of Australian life where everything's on the up: we're enjoying a sustained prison boom.

Consider this. Over the 66 years to 1984, Australia's rate of imprisonment per head of population rose by a paltry 13 per cent. Over just the past 30 years, however, it's more than doubled.

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman 

How's that for progress? We now have more than 36,000 people behind bars, meaning our imprisonment rate exceeds that of Canada, Britain and most of Europe.

And I'm happy to acknowledge that the Aboriginal community has made a quite disproportionate contribution to this achievement. The Indigenous imprisonment rate is now more than 45 per cent higher than it was at the time of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

This exciting news is brought to us by Dr Don Weatherburn, director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, in a conference paper to be delivered on Thursday.

Weatherburn calculates that if we can only maintain the rate of growth we've achieved in the past five years for another three, we'll be up to more than 43,000 prisoners nationwide.

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Think of the contribution to "growth and jobs". A screws-led recovery. And think of the improvement in productivity as we stuff more prisoners into our existing jails.

But that's not the best of it. We've been able to keep prison numbers growing even as rates of crime have been falling. How's that for an achievement?

How's it been done? Easy. Over the past 30 years we've pursued policies that result in more people being refused bail, more people getting a prison sentence and more people staying in prison for longer.

Truly, the prison industry and its backers could teach the commercial world a thing or two about drumming up business.

To be fair, there was a long period when rates of crime got worse and worse. According to Weatherburn, it started in the 1960s when servicemen returning from Vietnam brought heroin with them. The rate of heroin use began to climb, and with it a lot of heroin-related crime.

Between 1973 and 2001, rates of theft and robbery soared. Property crime spread from working-class suburbs such as Redfern, Footscray and Fortitude Valley to middle-class suburbs as well. By 1983, nearly one in 10 Australian households had been victims of some form of household property crime in just the past 12 months.

The public got fed up. Led by the shock jocks, the media jumped on the bandwagon and state politicians competed with each other to prove they were tougher on crime than thou.

Australians became prison-happy. Got a problem? Whack some people in jail. Problem doesn't seem to be easing? Lengthen their sentences. Still not happy? Keep getting tougher, without ever checking to see if it's working.

But now crime rates have been falling since 2000, the time when the heroin problem suddenly went away. The national robbery rate is down by two-thirds, as is the burglary rate. Motor vehicle theft is down by more than 70 per cent and all other forms of theft by more than 40 per cent.

Even the rate of assault seems at last to be coming down in NSW and Victoria.

You could, if you were of a mind to, argue that crime is down precisely because more baddies are locked up. But this ignores all the other factors that may have changed.

Careful analysis by criminologists finds that a higher rate of incarceration does reduce crime, but only to a small extent, too small to explain much of the extent of the fall.

Of course, the nigglers – economists and suchlike – would point out that all this imprisonment is costing taxpayers a lot. In the 12 years to 1994-95, national spending on corrective services almost doubled to $880 million a year.

By now it's almost trebled to $2.6 billion a year. And if it continues its present rate of growth it will be up to $3.5 billion in three years' time.

We're spending a fortune to keep people locked up for ages even though it's not a very effective – and thus a very expensive – way to reduce crime.

But what about what about all the "growth and jobs" we're generating? You won't hear this from politicians, but those niggling economists will tell you we don't need growth for growth's sake, nor even jobs for jobs sake.

The fact is that all spending – by households, businesses or governments – creates jobs, so it's not enough to say this project or that will create jobs. That's why, if we've got any sense, we'll ensure that what we spend on brings us the most of those things we most want.

To give you an idea, the $2.6 billion a year we're spending keeping so many people banged up is the same as the cost of employing about 2800 probation and parole officers for 10 years, or putting more than 100,000 students through university.

At a time when governments – federal and state – profess to have no money to spare for worthy causes, perhaps we should be looking for ways to punish offenders that are more effective in reducing crime and aren't so expensive.

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

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