The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data show that in the December quarter 2013 the daily average number of full-time prisoners in Australia was 32,240 persons. This is an astonishing number, the highest ever recorded, and was an increase of 2378 persons, or 8 per cent, since December 2012. Increases occurred in every state and territory except Western Australia and Tasmania, which both reported very small decreases.
The overall national picture is one of increasing punitiveness, even though there is general agreement that there have been significant reductions in reported crime over the past decade, but there are big differences between jurisdictions on the relative use of imprisonment. In my view the most useful measure of punitiveness is the imprisonment rate, or the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the relevant adult population.
On this measure, the ACT still holds pride of place with the lowest rate at about 110, but Tasmania and Victoria are not far behind. The other four states all cluster around the national average of about 180, while the Northern Territory is on its own, with an imprisonment rate of about 860. This means that any individual adult in the NT is nearly eight times more likely to be in jail than an adult in the ACT. In the light of this huge difference it is difficult to make the case that Australian offers equal justice to all its citizens.
The punitive picture is also illustrated by the fact that the number of convicted offenders serving community-based correctional orders increased by only 3 per cent over the same period, to a national total of 55,781 in the December-2014 quarter. For many years the ratio of prisoners to persons serving community correctional orders was close to two offenders in the community for every one behind bars, but that ratio has slipped markedly. Nationally, that ratio is now 1.7 to one, with two jurisdictions, WA and the NT, actually having more people in jail than serving community corrections orders, while at the other extreme, Tasmania and the ACT both have ratios of more than four to one.
We all know that there are special reasons why the NT has particular problems – such as a general population which is extremely diversified (both in cultural background and country of birth), the highest rate of alcohol consumption in Australia, and high rates of domestic violence and homicide – but it is still hard to explain why a jurisdiction with a total population which is only 60 per cent of the population of the ACT has more than 1500 people in jail while the ACT has only about 300. It makes the problems experienced from time to time in ACT corrective services seem trivial by comparison.
NT Minister for Correctional Services John Elferink recently announced that by the middle of this year a new facility, the Darwin Correctional Precinct, will open. It will provide 1048 beds and cost about $1.8 billion, but it is widely predicted that the new facility will be full as soon as it opens. The problems in Darwin could be similar to those in Alice Springs, where earlier this year people remanded in custody could not be returned to prison as it was over capacity, so they had to be housed at the police watch house.
I have not met Mr Elferink, but I have spoken with him on the telephone and I know that he is determined to do all that he can to reduce offender recidivism. He is particularly committed to a policy of ensuring that all prisoners work during their time in custody. He has even established a program known as Sentenced to a Job, which provides for offenders to be paid normal wages for their efforts. He is also the Attorney-General and Minister for Police and Emergency Services in the territory and therefore has ultimate responsibility for the whole criminal justice system, which should make it easier to bring about changes to the system which improve efficiency and effectiveness.
During our telephone conversation, which he initiated, Mr Elferink told me, to my complete astonishment, that he was about to implement the recommendations of a report on Groote Eylandt prisoners that I had prepared more than 30 years ago! Even though relatively small, Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria produced proportionately far more prisoners than any other local government area in the NT. In fact I found that the Groote Eylandt imprisonment rate was seven or eight times higher than the NT rate. I do not have the latest figures, but I believe that is still the case.
In my report I observed that “the operation of criminal justice services on Groote Eylandt not only fail to deter criminal behaviour, but reinforce and reward such behaviour”. This somewhat bizarre observation came about because offenders on the island who were sentenced to less than six months served their time at the local police station, while those sentenced to longer terms were transferred to Darwin. Most of these more serious offenders saw this as a holiday in which they could catch up with old friends and enjoy colour television. I was told by several people that many offenders deliberately committed offences that would gain them at least six months in jail and therefore entitle them to a “holiday” in a mainland prison.
To resolve this situation, I suggested that a medium-security prison be established on Groote Eylandt for up to 25 prisoners serving either short or long sentences in order to remove the rewarding aspect of terms over six months. I have not been told whether this proposal is actually proceeding.
With such an array of remarkable statistics and troubling anecdotes, it is little wonder that the NT attracts the interest of many Australian criminologists.
David Biles is a semi-retired criminologist who lives in Canberra.
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