Law, Social policy | Australia, Asia

18 January 2016

Policymakers need to move on from the ‘tough on crime’ mantra and look for answers beyond a prison cell, writes Hilde Tubex.

If you live in Australia’s Northern Territory there is a good chance that you, or someone you know, is in (or will at some point be in) prison. The NT has Australia’s highest rate of imprisonment, locking up 885 in every 100,000 adult people; not far off one in every 100. But the NT is not alone; in every state and territory of Australia prison populations are increasing, due to an increasingly punitive attitude towards criminal behaviour, mainly driven by policymakers.

So is there any hope for reducing imprisonment rates? Evidence from around the world says yes, and that decreasing rates isn’t simply a matter of fate, but a matter of policy.

Trends in prison populations became a topic of (comparative) criminological research in the 1980s, when most industrialised countries started to experience an increase of their prison population. As a result, academics started to investigate what was driving this trend, which they saw as an expression of a growing punitiveness.

Increasing imprisonment rates didn’t only catch the attention of academics; it also put crime and justice on the political agenda. Politicians realised that criminal behaviour had become a growing concern of society, and the political discourse became more punitive; promising harsher sentences to prevent further offending.

This trend coincided with a growing neo-liberal political orientation, in which society became more individualised, with limited state intervention and greater personal responsibility. Politicians cut down on welfare provisions, which created a growing gap between those who did well on the free market and those who didn’t, who subsequently became more marginalised.

Offending behaviour was increasingly looked upon as an individual responsibility, and one which society had no further accountability for than to punish. This ‘law and order’ approach proved to be electorally successful, and was adopted during the eighties and nineties by both left and right wing politicians. It is, however, in majoritarian two-party systems that this development is most outspoken, while coalition governments are more moderate.

More on this: Tackling terror beyond jail sentences | Anthony Whealy

Furthermore, these majoritarian systems seem to be more vulnerable to the impact of media reporting and subsequent perceptions of public opinion. In two-party systems where ‘the winner takes it all’, in contrast with proportional representation, it becomes crucial to win the votes of the majority, and crime and justice are popular topics to secure votes.

The media has an important role to play in informing and shaping public opinion. However, in the commercial press the general public is often presented as being punitive, and politicians claim to respond to what the public wants. This is regardless of the fact that more nuanced investigation shows that a well-informed public is open to less punitive responses to crime. Finally, there is the important impact of the judiciary, which also feels accountable to public expectations, or is forced to do so by government interventions, curtailing their discretionary power.

Another important aspect to highlight is that punitiveness impacts most on vulnerable minorities, as demonstrated in the high Indigenous overrepresentation in Australian prison populations. Indigenous people account for 27 per cent of the national imprisonment rate, while they only form about 2.5 per cent of the general population. This overrepresentation is most pronounced in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where Indigenous people are respectively 14 and 17 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous people.

Looking at these drivers from an Australian perspective, it’s clear that Australia as a country shares a lot of the characteristics that are associated with a more punitive approach, resulting in high prison populations. However, as Australia consists of eight independent jurisdictions, imprisonment rates vary considerably between states and territories: between the high rates of the Northern Territory to more moderate rates, such as 134 in 100,000 in Victoria and 130 in 100,000 in Tasmania.

These differences can be explained by historical and cultural differences between jurisdictions and the prevailing penal culture. This local culture – even in times of growing globalisation – also explains international differences in imprisonment rates, such as the consistently low imprisonment rates in the Scandinavian countries due to a traditionally more social penal policy in which crime is seen as a social problem that needs to be addressed by the society in providing rehabilitation.

However, there are also signs that in other countries, which used to be examples of a punitive approach, the times might be changing. For the first time since the start of the increasing prison population, imprisonment rates are going down in most states of the US, and the tide also reversed in the Netherlands, with significantly decreasing imprisonment rates. More modest decreases are being measured in other European countries, such as Belgium, France and Germany, which means that there might be a case for ‘penal optimism’. While the analysis of this reversed trend is still subject to further investigation, what it does demonstrate is that increasing prison populations are not a matter of fate, but of policy.

So, how can we curb the trend of growing prison populations in Australia? A first step is to inform the public and the media about crime and justice and give them a true picture: that crime rates are actually going down, contrary to the general belief; that prison outcomes are counterproductive and that community based sanctions have better results; and that sentences are not as lenient as people tend to think they are.

Second, to stop the political ‘law and order’ auction through greater use of evidence-based investigation of what causes crime and how this can best be addressed, particularly for vulnerable groups that are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

Finally, we need to restore confidence in the judiciary when it comes to sentencing, to limit parliamentary interventions such as minimum mandatory sentences and bail restrictions, and to leave it to the judges to judge, taking into account individual circumstances.

The last few decades may have been about policymakers showing they are “tough on crime”, but there is hope for a less punitive future; one where answers lie beyond a prison cell.

Hilde Tubex is one of the speakers at the 3rd Applied Research in Crime and Justice conference in Brisbane on 18-19 February. For more details:

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Tubex, Hilde. 2017. "Reducing Imprisonment Rates In Australia - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.