Dec 16, 2011

Aboriginal crime and punishment: spending on jails but not outcomes

The rise of a punitive "law and order" culture in Australia has had a profoundly racial dimension, manifested in soaring rates of indigenous incarceration. Inga Ting continues her special report.

The rise of a punitive “law and order” culture in Australia has had a profoundly racial dimension, manifested in soaring rates of indigenous incarceration. The number of indigenous adults held in the nation’s jails has increased for the 11th year in a row — as Crikey revealed in part one yesterday — while over the past decade the indigenous imprisonment rate has outstripped the non-indigenous rate by a factor of 11, ballooning more than 47%. The non-indigenous rate grew 4% in the same period.

This shift towards the use of crime and punishment as a tool of social control — known as “governing through crime” — has led to the rise of a “risk agenda” that concentrates on the risk of crime occurring, not just actual crime. In this society of heightened fear and increased surveillance, punishment is increasingly targeted at those on the periphery. And no group lies more at the periphery than indigenous Australians.

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6 thoughts on “Aboriginal crime and punishment: spending on jails but not outcomes

  1. Wombat

    I’m not as convinced by this article as yesterday’s effort.

    You’re implying that our judicial system is inherently racist, whereas I suggest your evidence shows that Aboriginal people are simply far more likely to end up in the hands of the judicial system.

    For example, the driving/vehicle offences comparison of 12.5% black to 2.9% white. Consider this: you’re Aboriginal and living in remote Australia. You don’t speak English very well, and can’t read/write, so you have no chance of obtaining a drivers licence. You might have a car, but as you share a house with 20 people, you don’t have the money to register it. Because you live in a remote area, it never occurs to you that bald tyres or a broken muffler are illegal. As there is no public transport, driving your car is the only way to get around. Despite repeated warnings from the local police, they eventually arrest you for being unlicenced and driving an unregistered, unroadworthy car.

    You’re taken before a magistrate who is sympathetic but who cannot explain to you what you have done wrong. Because of a childhood infection you have a serious hearing problem (extremely common in remote areas) and can’t understand the interpreter the court has provided.

    The law is the law. When you can’t pay the fine, you are arrested and sent to prison.

    The factors that lead to disgustingly high levels of Aboriginal incarceration are many. To prevent the person above from going to prison, we would need:
    1. Better education outcomes for Aboriginal people, which will take at least a generation to improve.
    2. At least triple the current housing stock in remote areas, with a price tag in the billions, plus the enormous ongoing costs of maintenance and upkeep.
    3. An enormous boost to health outcomes, including health education and staff. Try and imagine the challenge of hiring a doctor for a remote community. To hire a doctor in Melbourne will cost you the standard GP salary. To hire a doctor for a remote community costs: salary + 50% to get people interested, house for them to live in @ approx $500k to build, 4WD for $100k, etc.

    It’s not a matter of simple racism.

  2. Bob Durnan

    A lot of useful, thought-provoking points made here, especially by Harry Blagg. It’s a pity he’s leaving these colonial shores to return to the old country.
    However, I would like to take issue with some of David Woodroffe’s statements. He is factually incorrect in his statements about the NTER Intervention and its impacts. The NTER has not invested heavily in “punishing criminal behaviour”. Woodroffe appears to be remarkably ignorant about the breadth and depth of the NTER and related services and programs.
    Even in the short term, “more policing in communities — more police stations and police posts” is fundamentally a crime prevention mechanism, not simply a regime of punishment. Whilst in the short term “more people will come to the attention of police, will be charged, get into the [criminal justice] process”, at the same time more people who would otherwise have been committing crimes that formerly went undetected and unpunished are also now being deterred from actually committing those crimes.
    This is certainly the case in the several remote NT communities in which I have worked during the period since the introduction of the NTER.
    The longer term outcome will likely be a significant deterrence of crime, as the community youth sub-culture and individual behaviours are changed by the combination of more reliable local policing, supporting and allied with NTER funding for the expanded, more effective Night Patrols; increased youth and recreation services; greatly expanded educational capacity designed to attract and retain post-primary aged students; greatly expanded health services; increased inducements to achieve school attendance throughout the school-age years; expanded substance abuse services; and greatly increased parenting skills and leadership training in remote communities.

    These activities are all funded under the NTER and related funding programs. Together with other initiatives being planned in the work, training and economic development sphere, they must be considered together. There is no justification for discounting this extraordinary increase in government expenditure in the NT, or for a senior NAAJA spokesperson professing ignorance of this wide array of integrated Commonwealth funding initiatives in the remote communities.
    Other big increases in early childhood education, health and welfare programs will provide even greater benefits for these communities in the longer term, meaning that in 15 to 20 years there should be the possibility of significant improvements in justice outcomes for youth from these communities.
    Although Woodroffe is broadly correct in saying that “there’s no youth diversion programs, there’s no rehabilitation services” for those presently getting caught up in the justice system as offenders, and this lack does need to be addressed with urgency, he is very negligent, or worse, to claim “government’s providing an impetus for detecting crime and prosecuting crime but there’s not the services there for reducing crime or turning people away from it” when the bigger picture is considered.

  3. Microseris

    Clearly many of the background issues listed have a socio-economic element where violence begets more violence. Resolution of these contributing factors is not going to be rectified with more severe punishment. Solutions proposed by governments always have an us and them implication; and therefore the remedy chosen is always punitive.

    In Victoria, the Baillieu Government recently announced funding for a “Mega Prison” whilst simultaneously diverting funds away from Education and rehabilitation. Funding cuts included VCAL programs which provide hands on learning and work experience which often keeps kids at school longer and benefits the most underprivileged, at the same time funnelling additional funds to rich private schools. This is the same as the US formula and hasn’t that been a spectacular success.

    For both sides of politics, their performance on these issues has been inadequate, whilst the Liberal Party seems to exist in a moral vacuum…

  4. Clarke Steve

    I cannot agree with the title for this story.
    In my time living in the north of WA, I was staggered at the amount of spending on “outcomes”.
    It was matched only by its ineffectiveness.

  5. kennethrobinson2

    The only way reduce the Aboriginal population in prison, is to convince them that crime doesn’t pay, by making them work, when they are inside.

  6. Liz45

    @KENNETHROBINSON2 – Haven’t you read anything? Is that your best effort?

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