The recently released report sponsored by the Australian National Council on Drugs' national indigenous drug and alcohol committee under the title An Economic Analysis for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Prisoners: Prison v Residential Treatment prepared by Deloitte Access Economics deserves close scrutiny as it addresses an issue which is of great concern to many Australians.
A useful summary of that report prepared by Carrie Fowlie was published on this page (''Jail costly way to tackle scourge'', February 12, p9) which focused on the application of the report to the ACT.
The council was established in 1998 as the primary advisory body to the government on drug policy and is chaired by the former Howard government indigenous affairs minister Dr John Herron.
With such prestigious credentials it may seem improper for me to find any fault with the report, but fault is not hard to find in Ms Fowlie's summary.
She argues that the cost of imprisoning someone at the Alexander Maconochie Centre is $596 a day and that this would be reduced if indigenous non-violent prisoners were diverted from jail to residential treatment centres. There would be savings and, by implication that figure would go down.
In fact, the average cost per day would rise if the number of prisoners came down as the average is due to the fact that the ACT has by far the lowest imprisonment rate in Australia, and also for the same reason, ACT taxpayers pay less than any other Australian jurisdiction for their corrective services. Let us hope that prevails for many years. If, for whatever reason, the number of people held in the prison is significantly reduced, there would be obvious cost savings in the longer term, but it is unwise and misleading to link this outcome to the average cost of keeping a prisoner for a day.
Of more concern is the bald claim by Ms Fowlie that ''more than 80 per cent of indigenous prisoners in Australia are there for non-violent crimes''.
There is no evidence in her article to support this claim, and I have to say it does not fit with my own experience gained from talking to scores of Aboriginal prisoners in many parts of the country over many years.
My personal and subjective view on this subject is confirmed by the results of the national prison census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on July 30, 2011. From Table 4.2 of the report of this census it can be shown that of the indigenous prisoners exactly 53 per cent were either sentenced or charged with violent inter-personal offences, whereas only 42 per cent of non-indigenous prisoners were in this category.
It is clear from these data that indigenous prisoners were more likely than non-indigenous prisoners to have committed violent offences. It also should be noted from this census that only 1.4 per cent of indigenous prisoners were in custody for offences involving illicit drugs, compared with 14.9 per cent of the non-indigenous prisoners. Illicit drugs are not a major factor in Aboriginal criminality.
The suggestion that residential care incorporating drug treatment be available as an alternative to jail is made with little or no detail of who would run these centres, for how long would residence be required, would the centres be open or closed, and who would pay for the costs of accommodation and meals? And, why drug treatment when drugs are not a major issue with these offenders?
If residence is compulsory and non-compliance can result in other penalties being imposed, the proposed centres would seem to be little different from prisons, even if they impose lower security.
My major concern about this general proposal is that it would be equivalent to giving indigenous non-violent offenders a get-out-of-jail-free card, without offering a similar card to non-indigenous, non-violent offenders. That would be a form of racism which few would find acceptable.
It would be especially unacceptable if the courts were given the authority to order more lenient and more effective penalties to some indigenous offenders which they could not order for other offenders.
I would support the suggestion that the ACT has an adult drug and alcohol court, provided that it were available to both indigenous and non-indigenous offenders.
Interestingly, if the proposal were non-discriminatory and non-indigenous offenders were treated equally, there could theoretically be a reduction in the numbers of both indigenous and non-indigenous prisoners which would result in the over-representation either remaining the same or possibly becoming a little worse because, as shown above, non-indigenous prisoners are less likely to have had violent histories.
In my opinion the only way to reduce indigenous over-representation in our prison systems in the northern parts of Australia is to keep chipping away at the four well-known pillars of Aboriginal disadvantage: health, housing, education and employment, which are made worse when they are associated with excessive alcohol consumption and (in some areas) petrol sniffing.
In the ACT we are not confronted with the extremes of Aboriginal disadvantage, but indigenous people are still over-represented in our jail (albeit at a lower rate than the national average), but the four areas of need are still relevant to our community. However, no-one has yet identified an effective methodology to resolve the problem.
The council report and Ms Fowlie's summary are obviously motivated by the best of intentions - to reduce the embarrassingly high rate of Aboriginal over-representation in our prisons throughout Australia. But more research is needed before a practical solution can be identified and implemented.
David Biles is a Canberra-based consultant criminologist. From 1987 until 1990 he was the head of research for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
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