Overcrowded, warehouses for Indigenous Australians, and ineffective in tackling the causes of crime. That’s what leaps off the pages dealing with corrections in the Productivity Commission’s annual Report on Government Services released today.

Take the revelation that, courtesy of its obsession with jailing people, the Liberal government of Colin Barnett is running its prisons at 120 percent of capacity. In laypersons language this means chronic overcrowding.

This is a dubious honour shared with the Labor government of Paul Henderson in the Northern Territory which reports a similar figure. South Australia, whose Treasurer Kevin Foley proudly boasts about prison overcrowding, did not submit any figures this year. You can guess they’d be up there with WA and the NT though.

It is one of a number of bleak statistics from the PC’s report, in which only one state and one territory, Victoria and the ACT, shine. And surprise, surprise because they have low imprisonment rates, both have very low recidivism rates.

Despite the fact that just about every skerrick of empirical data available in this country, and other jurisdictions such as the US, Canada and the UK shows that jailing people is generally inefficient and therefore a waste of taxpayers’ money compared to non-custodial alternatives, our politicians just aren’t taking any notice.

In 2008-09 on average there were 27,612 people in prison – up 4.4 percent on last year’s number. That’s a rate of 165.6 persons in every 100,000 is in jail in Australia – up from 162.6 in 2007/08.

And are getting bang for our buck? No. Recurrent expenditure on prisons in 2008-09 was $2.8 billion. By contrast community corrections only cost us $400 million. And not only are community corrections much cheaper, they work. 71 percent of community corrections orders were completed by participants in 2008-09 – that’s a high number given the fragility of many participants, coupled with the ready opportunity to fail to show up at the community corrections centre, or for a counselors appointment.

Yet because of the law and order policies of governments which make going to jail mandatory for some offences in WA, NSW and the NT the use of community corrections is in decline.

The number of prisoners in education and training programs is less than 40 percent around Australia, and in NSW and Queensland the figure is under 30 percent. It’s not simply a case of prisoners not availing themselves of the opportunities.

Governments are not spending enough on expanding opportunities for prisoners – this is borne out by the fact that the amount of money spent on programs per prisoner has only risen $6 in the past six years. Given CPI increases that means the actual dollars spent have dropped.

But the most damning aspect of our corrections system is the fact that 25 percent of the prison population is Indigenous. In all the huffing and puffing by the Howard and Rudd governments over the need for federal intervention in Indigenous affairs, there has been little said about this appalling incarceration rate. Why?

Presumably because that would mean politicians softening the law and order rhetoric and giving courts the message that jailing Indigenous Australians must not only be a last resort, but perhaps not a resort at all. Imagine the tabloid reaction to that.

Greg Barns is a Director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance and involved as a lawyer in cases concerning human rights for prisoners.

Peter Fray

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