Australian prisons are fast becoming the new asylums of the third millennium. The prison industry is booming, while Australia spends far less on mental health services than similar countries.
Most Australians actually believe there is a crime wave in this country. We have been manipulated by the tabloid headlines and the shock tactics of talkback radio hosts, complemented at times by the false advertising and posturing of political parties anxious to achieve or maintain power.
The debate about crime and punishment in Victoria as a precursor to the state election mirrors closely what has happened in recent years in other state election campaigns around Australia. Political leaders, supported by popular commentators, suggest that crime has risen dramatically and that criminal sanctions are not tough enough.
There is little room in this popular debate for reasoned argument, nor for recourse to accurate knowledge and reliable statistical information.
Already there has been a dramatic increase in the national adult imprisonment rate according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In the decade from 1990 to 2000, there was a 32 per cent increase in the rate of imprisonment, from 112 to 148 per 100,000 of the adult population.
This represented an increase of 52 per cent in the total prison population from 14,305 in 1990 to 21,714 in 2000. This rate of increase has been sustained over the past two years.
The cost of imprisonment continues to increase year by year,as does every form of institutional care or residential service. Imprisonment costs vary according to the level of security of the facility, from around $30,000 a year for a minimum-security cell, through to about $120,000 a year for a maximum-security cell. Generally, the operating costs of each prison cell average out to about $50,000 a year.
This does not take into account establishment costs, which average about $250,000 per cell. Nationally, the recurrent expenditure on corrective services totalled $1.5 billion for 2000-01, with $1.3 billion being spent on the operation of the country's 96 prisons. Such costs do not reflect the quality of the accommodation, but rather the costs of security installations, including wages of prison officers.
Despite repeated assertions to the contrary, and occasional misleading figures from groups with a partisan agenda, it is apparent from the most reliable sources available that there has not been a significant increase in serious crime across Australia, certainly not equivalent to the 52 per cent increase in the national prison population that has been recorded during the past decade.
The question to be asked of state and territory governments around Australia is this: if there has not been a proportionate increase in serious crime in the past decade, why should the Australian community pay for a 52 per cent increase in the prison population, at an average annual cost of around $50,000 a person?
If the Australian community received the same result rate from its education system or its health system, we would be demanding a better deal. Perhaps it is about time we moved forward, left behind our penal heritage and raised our expectations of the correctional services beyond one of retribution focused on punishment alone.
It is not possible to have such dramatic increases in the use of imprisonment during a decade and still maintain other essential community services, particularly in the areas of health, education and welfare.
So the question that ordinary taxpayers should be asking their state and territory governments is: if the results of our correctional system are so disappointing in terms of deterring people from committing crime and if the vast majority of those sent to prison reoffend after their release, why as a community are we spending an increasing percentage of the government dollar on constructing and operating new prisons?
Would the extra money being allocated in this way be better spent improving the educational opportunities of students from disadvantaged families, or by improving the health services for those with multiple needs?
The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 1997, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, found that almost one in five Australians aged 18 or more met criteria for a mental disorder at some time during the 12 months before the survey, but that only 38 per cent of people with a mental disorder had used health services. These results suggest a large unmet need for mental health services, and among this group young Australians are the most highly represented.
Throughout Australia today, those with a mental illness compounded with a problem of substance misuse are usually excluded from treatment when they finally approach either a mental health service or a drug treatment unit.
Mental health services say that they cannot deal with the substance use, and drug services explain that they are not equipped to deal with the symptoms of mental illness. Many young Australians are now the victims of what is being called "ping-pong therapy", because our existing health services do not have the capacity to respond to the needs of young people in a holistic way.
Much of the recent dramatic increase in the Australian prison population can be explained by recognising this dynamic relationship existing between untreated mental health needs, subsequent illegal use of drugs as a form of self-medication, and the eventual intervention by the criminal justice system. Imprisonment is both far more expensive than community mental health care and, more importantly, is less effective.
There is another approach the community, and our political leaders, could take in dealing with public safety and crime control. It is an approach very much consistent with the value base of the Judaeo-Christian community. It is called "restorative justice". Restorative justice is concerned with bringing about reconciliation and healing and ensuring that the views of all parties are heard: the victim, the offender and other members of the community who could be regarded as stakeholders.
Restorative justice seeks personal accountability, notable by its absence in our present criminal justice system, where individuals are encouraged to deny responsibility. It also seeks to create opportunities for better human interaction,and for the healing of wounds, especially those of victims who often feel unrecognised and unsupported in our existing structures. Victims are generally not assisted by seeking revenge, but by healing, which takes away some of the pain and the fear.
Restorative justice places reparation, rather than punishment, as a central concern and has been seen, where it is being implemented, to bring about a reduction in both offending and prison numbers.
How refreshing it would be to discover an Australian politician with responsibility for shaping criminal justice policy in this country committed to implementing reform that incorporated restorative justice principles. Restorative justice is an approach to the complex issue of crime and punishment that could enhance the quality of life of all Australian citizens, an approach that incorporates true justice.
By: Father Peter Norden
(Policy Director of Jesuit Social Services and
Convenor of the Victorian Criminal Justice Coalition.)
October 25, 2002 (source - The Age)
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