Afew days ago a good friend, knowing my interest in prison statistics, gave me a single-page document dated September 2, 2012, which was published by the US Department of Justice and purported to show that the number of people in custody in America had decreased by 0.3 per cent in the 12 months from 2009 to 2010. That sounds like good news, but closer scrutiny suggests otherwise.
Apart from being out of date, the document used only the numbers from the state and federal systems and failed to even acknowledge the county jail system which houses an additional 30 per cent or more of all people behind bars in the US. It suggested that there were just over 1.6 million inmates in state and federal institutions at the end of 2009, but it is easy to find other sources of information which show that the total would be more than 2.4 million if all forms of corrective custody are included.
More importantly, no mention was made of the impact of the Global Financial Crisis which forced a number of states to release prisoners because they could no longer afford the cost of keeping them in custody.
California was a dramatic example of this problem. With more than 160,000 inmates in Californian prisons the system was holding twice as many inmates than the number for which it was designed. The stress caused by this overcrowding was referred to the US Supreme Court which ordered in 2011 the number of prisoners be reduced by at least 40,000 so that basic medical and other services could be provided.
This requirement has not yet been met, but some reduction in the numbers has occurred as a result of the transfer of about 9000 state prisoners to the county or local jail system where they are not counted in the national figures and which is intended only for accused people awaiting trial and sentenced prisoners serving less than one year. Even if the Supreme Court order is eventually met, prison overcrowding in the Californian system would still be about 137 per cent.
Stories like this make any problems that we have with correctional systems in Australia pale into insignificance. We certainly do have problems from time to time in some of our eight jurisdictions, but they must seem trivial when compared with the appalling overcrowding and gross over-use of custody that can be seen in the US. A few weeks ago in late March the Australian Bureau of Statistics issued the latest quarterly report on corrective services which included some fascinating data. Of particular interest is the fact that an observation which I made in these pages in April last year that Australian imprisonment rates seemed to be declining is proving to be true. In that article I noted that in April 2010 Australia as a whole had a daily average of 29,289 prisoners, which equated to 171.9 prisoners per 100,000 adults in the community.
Since then, the numbers have come down just a little so that in December 2011 the national total was 28, 981, but over this period the rate has declined quite markedly to 165.2 which means a fall of 3.9 per cent over the previous 20 months. This is something worth celebrating as if the imprisonment rate had stayed at the same level as it was in April 2010, we would have been holding about 650 more prisoners than we actually had in December last year. That would have added more than $60 million to the national costs of corrections.
The fall in prisoner numbers may be due to a large extent to the fall in the crime that I mentioned in an article last month but it may also be due to the possibility that our judges and magistrates are taking more seriously the view (which I and many others hold) that the penalty of imprisonment should only be imposed as a last resort after all other alternatives have been considered.
The decrease in prisoner numbers has not been the same in all states and territories. Three states showed large falls, with NSW leading the way with a fall of nearly 10 per cent, no doubt as a result of the new policy being pursued by the O'Farrell government, while Queensland and WA both recorded falls of a little over 5 per cent. All of the other jurisdictions recorded increases in prisoner numbers, but these were generally fairly small, except for the ACT where the increase was more than 20 per cent during the 20-month period.
It seems that Australia not only has a two-speed economy, it also has two groups of jurisdictions pushing their numbers of prisoners either up or down. In the group increasing their numbers, the NT prison system is already in a state of chronic crisis with overcrowding so serious that an increasing number of prisoners are being permanently lodged in police watch-houses rather than prisons, and even the watch-houses have little or no spare capacity.
The ACT does not have the same problem yet, but urgent action must be taken soon to ensure that we don't find ourselves in a similar situation. In December 2011 we had a daily average of 256 prisoners and remandees in the Alexander Maconochie Centre, and that number is too high to allow for efficient management of different types of inmates in an institution which was designed to hold a maximum of 300.
The actual or potential problems in corrections in Australia are serious enough by our standards but would not rate as problems worthy of even a footnote in any international list of prison problems if that list included the US. As I often said to my criminology students: we should all learn as much as possible about American practices in policing, sentencing and correctional management so that we in Australia will be less likely to make the same mistakes.
David Biles is a Canberra-based consultant criminologist.