You don't need me to tell you that in a country such as America, with all its history of racial conflict, the rate of imprisonment for African-Americans is far higher than the rate for whites. Twelve times higher, in fact. But you may need me to tell you we make the Yanks look good. Our rate of indigenous imprisonment is 18 times that for the rest of us.
Aborigines make up 2.5 per cent of the Australian adult population, but account for 26 per cent of all adult Australian prisoners.
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
If you want me to give you some economic reasons we should care about this, it's not hard. On average it costs $275 a day to keep an adult in jail. So it's costing taxpayers about $800 million a year just to keep that many Aborigines in prison. And this takes no account of the cost of juvenile detention centres, police costs in responding to offending, the cost of investigating and prosecuting suspected offenders and the health costs in responding to and treating victims.
Obviously, for every Aborigine who was in a job and paying tax rather than in jail and costing money, there'd be a double benefit to taxpayers, as well as a gain to the economy. But the far more important reason for caring about the high rate of indigenous imprisonment is moral. As the criminologist Don Weatherburn argues in his new book Arresting Incarceration, the consequences of European settlement have been truly calamitous for Aboriginal Australians.
''The harm might not have always been deliberate and it may not have been inflicted by anyone alive today, but it is no less real for that,'' Weatherburn says. ''An apology for past wrongs would be meaningless without a determined attempt to remedy the damage done.''
The trouble is, particularly in the case of Aboriginal imprisonment, we've been making such an attempt, but getting nowhere. If not before, the problem was brought to our attention by the 1991 findings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
The commission found that Aborigines were no more likely to die in jail than other prisoners. The reason so many died was that they constituted such a high proportion of the prison population.
The Keating government accepted all but one of the commission's recommendations and allocated the present-day equivalent of almost $700 million to put them into effect. State and territory governments committed themselves to a comprehensive reform program.
But get this: rather than declining since then, the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment has got worse.
''It is hard to imagine a more spectacular policy failure,'' Weatherburn says.
It would be easy to blame the problem on racism in the justice system but, though there may be some truth in this, it's not the real reason. Similarly, Weatherburn argues it's not good enough to blame it on ''indigenous disadvantage''.
If that were the case, virtually all Aborigines would be actively involved in crime and they aren't. Most are never arrested or imprisoned.
The plain fact is that more Aborigines are in jail because more Aborigines commit crimes, particularly violent crimes.
In NSW, for example, the indigenous rate of arrest for assault is 12 times higher than the non-indigenous rate. The rate of indigenous arrest for break and enter is 17 times higher. Measures taken after the royal commission failed to reduce crime because they assumed this would be achieved if indigenous Australians were ''empowered''. Much of the money and effort was devoted to legal aid and land acquisition.
Weatherburn argues that if you want to understand indigenous offending, you need to look at the factors likely to get anyone involved in crime, regardless of race.
''The four most important of these are poor parenting (particularly child neglect and abuse), poor school performance, unemployment and substance abuse,'' he says. ''Indigenous Australians experience far higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, child neglect and abuse, poor school performance and unemployment than their non-indigenous counterparts.''
The first and most important thing we need to do, he says, is reduce the level of Aboriginal drug and alcohol abuse. This is key, not just because drug and alcohol abuse have direct effects on violence and crime, but also because they have such a corrosive effect on the quality of parenting children receive which greatly increases the children's risk of involvement in crime.
Weatherburn's second priority is putting more resources into improving indigenous education and training. As the mining boom in the Pilbara has shown, it's much easier to find jobs for Aborigines when they have the degree of education and skill employers are looking for.
His third priority is investing in better offender rehabilitation programs. Efforts to divert serious and repeat offenders from prison have been a dismal failure. But small changes in the rate of indigenous return to jail have the potential to produce large and rapid effects on the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment.
Much existing spending on Aboriginal affairs is ineffective. Were it not for Tony Abbott's special affinity with Aborigines in the Top End, we could expect the coming federal budget to really put the knife through it.
But this would save money without reducing the problem.
It will be a great day when the advocates of smaller government abandon the false economy of not wasting money on the routine, rigorous and independent evaluation of the effectiveness of government spending programs. Then we might make some progress.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor.