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Issue #1723      March 16, 2016

Concern over prison rates

An alarming rise in the number of Aboriginal people being sent to jail since the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, is according to the chief numbers man in NSW, a matter of “real concern”.

NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research chief Dr Don Weatherburn told the Koori Mail that the number of Aboriginal people incarcerated was now 45 percent higher than when the royal commission examined high imprisonment rates of Indigenous people back in the late 1980s.

And according to the latest figures released by the bureau, coupled with the NSW government’s tough-on-crime approach, the situation is unlikely to get better any time soon.

“Back in March 2011, there were 2,250 Aboriginal people in jail in a total jail population of 10,000,” Weatherburn said.

“That’s now up to 2,900 in December 2015, of a total population of 12,000.”

Weatherburn described the latest figures as “a worrying result”.

“There wouldn’t be too many Aboriginal people who don’t know someone who has been to jail. It’s become an ingrained way of life,” he said. “Aboriginal people are just two percent of the population yet they make up 20 percent of the prison population (in NSW).”

Weatherburn believes a reason the prison population is rising is because “the left hand (of government) doesn’t know what the right hand is doing”.

“We create alternatives like suspended sentences or community service, meanwhile government introduces mandatory sentencing and a ‘tough-on-crime’ approach,” he said.

Police notice

Weatherburn said Aboriginal people appeared more likely to come under police notice for two reasons. “There is still a big problem with violence and substance abuse in some Aboriginal communities, but they also get picked up more regularly for minor offences like public order offences,” he said.

“This creates a vicious cycle.”

Weatherburn said a rising prison population, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, was an area of “great concern”. According to its latest report, Why is the NSW prison population still growing?, BOCSAR (NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research) found that between June 2011 and September 2015, the number of people in prison rose from 10,000 to 11,801, an increase of 18 percent.

“The increase since November 2014 has been particularly marked, with an additional 1,421 prisoners added to the population in just 10 months,” the report says.

Weatherburn said the figures showed that current strategies to reduce prison rates were not working, and a new strategy was needed. “People massively overestimate the effect that jail has in controlling crime,” he said.

“If you get a 10 percent increase in prison numbers you maybe get a 1.5 percent reduction in crime. You are better off trying to get that reduction with treatment options, and creating jobs for people.

“The Americans have realised this and they’ve been trying to empty their prisons because they’ve woken up to the fact that the system is not working.

“It costs around $230 a day to keep a person in prison. A far less expensive option would be things like community service orders, or supporting people to real employment.

“It’s certainly something worth exploring.”

Koori Mail

Next article – Halt the erosion of Australia’s democracy

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