Australia enters a ‘Second Convict Age’, MP says

Australia is entering a “second convict age” and the rate of jailing of Indigenous Australians now exceeds the rate of jailing of African-Americans in the USA, a federal MP says.

And, if you’re passionate about reducing poverty and inequality, it’s impossible to ignore the upward trend in Australian incarceration rates over recent decades, according to the (Labor) Member for Fenner, an ACT electorate, Dr Andrew Leigh.

Australia’s incarceration rate is now 0.22%, the highest it has been since 1899.

“By drawing attention to Australia’s shocking incarceration rates, I hope to prompt a rethink by state and territory governments of the policies that are seeing more people locked up than at any time since Federation,” Dr Leigh says.

He comes with strong research credentials. He has bachelor degrees in Arts and in Law, and a PhD from Harvard. Before politics overtook him, he was Professor of Economics at ANU, and a principal adviser to the Australian Treasury. He has written numerous books and articles. Little known about him is that he was once a High Court of Australia associate to the Great Dissenter, the retired judge Michael Kirby.

In a new research paper – The Second Convict Age: Explaining the Return of Mass Imprisonment in Australia – Dr Leigh says that the increase in the prison population has taken place across all states and territories, and coincides with a significant drop in crime rates. The two biggest drivers are tighter bail conditions and longer sentence lengths, which account for about three-quarters of the rise in incarceration.

Direct and indirect costs are high

There are good fiscal reasons for worrying about rising imprisonment rates. The direct fiscal cost is almost $5 billion, but the indirect costs could be higher still, he says.

Prisons have been called ‘universities of crime’, due to the fact that a majority of graduates go on to commit further offences. Some share needles, and half expect to be homeless upon release. Prisoners have an average of 1.8 children, whose schooling, mental health and poverty rates are adversely affected by their parent’s incarceration.

Among Indigenous Australians, incarceration has skyrocketed. Dr Leigh’s research finds that the Indigenous incarceration rate, at 2.5%, is now higher than the incarceration rate of African-Americans.

Among Indigenous men born in the 1970s, almost a quarter have been to prison. In Western Australia, 9 out of 10 have been arrested.

“What can we do about it?” he asks.

In the Netherlands, falling crime rates have seen the incarceration rate drop to one-third of Australia’s level. In 2018 the country closed four prisons.

In the United States, conservatives have championed ‘smart on crime’ approaches, pointing out that prisons are not a source of pride, and arguing that prisons should be prioritised for ‘people we’re afraid of, not the ones we’re mad at’.

– from The Leigh Report for September 2019, his monthly rundown. Dr Leigh is also Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities.

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