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Issue #1730      May 11, 2016

Law-and-order policies no answer

Recently the WA Chief Justice Wayne Martin gave an interview on ABC Radio and in a reflection on his ten years as the state’s highest judicial officer, expressed concern over the state’s high incarceration rates despite falling crime rates.

These remarks would however seem to contradict official police figures which show that crime rates were rising in the first three months of this year but that the rate of the increase had slowed.

What was important observed Martin was that West Australians are not drowning under a wave of crime but that our prisons are overflowing with offenders.

Ten years ago there were 3,300 people in WA prisons – now there are around 6,000 and yet there is continued community concern that sentencing of offenders is too lenient. Parliaments have responded to these concerns in the community by pursuing a tough-on-crime/law-and-order agenda.

“Politicians have to respond to community values and they have to win elections if they want to be in government, but there is a need for balance,” Martin said.

Politicians have a responsibility to lead and shape community values and to be truthful in the way they do this. At present, in Perth and some regional centres in WA, there are a number of causal factors of crime and principle amongst these are drug abuse and mental illness, homelessness and disadvantage. Martin said, “You can’t keep people in prison forever, you’ve got to let them out.”

It is expensive to keep people in prison; $334 a day to keep an adult in prison and $800 a day for juvenile incarceration.

Martin said that official estimates are that half the prison population are mentally ill or have a cognitive deficit.

Indigenous incarceration

The high levels of incarceration are most acute for the state’s Indigenous population, with Aboriginal people 18 times more likely to be in prison than non-Aboriginal people in Western Australia, a figure Martin said was “very distressing” and a sign that “we are failing”.

In the 25 years since the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody released its findings, incarceration rates have doubled in WA.

Successive governments have always been able to find money to build police stations, courthouses and prisons in remote and regional parts of WA – in fact wherever there are large numbers of Aboriginal people.

Martin expressed concern that governments haven’t been listening to Aboriginal people about what they want and need.


With a federal election around the corner and a state election in March 2017, the reflections by Chief Justice Martin give clarity to the task for governments, candidates standing for election and voters.

Don’t be tough on crime to win votes as it only makes the problem worse!

The tough-on-crime, law-and-order mantra do not work.

Our society and communities are coming apart at the seams and locking people up in prison is a short-term and short-sighted exercise.

Next article – Vietnam – Navigating competition, free trade

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