Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration

April 2, 2015

(The following post was originally published on 12 March 2015 on Open Forum.  I am taking the liberty of re-printing it here, and adding an addendum at the end of this post.)

In mid-February of this year, the Australian Prime Minister presented the annual “Closing the Gap” report to Parliament. Although some indicators saw improvement (health), in others – especially in education and employment – there was almost no improvement at all.

Of great concern is the statement on page 28 – of which little fanfare was made at the time – that, “the rate of imprisonment is higher than at any time during the decade”. The decade? In other words, Indigenous imprisonment has been steadily rising and is worse than any time in recent memory. That’s not just “no improvement”; it is a serious step backwards.

For anyone paying attention to the statistics on Indigenous disadvantage, this comes as no surprise. In December of last year, the Productivity Commission’s report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2014, made this point clearly (pp. 4.102-4.104):

  • Nationally at 30 June 2013, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate was 2039.5 per 100,000 adult population, an increase of around one‑third from the rate in 2000 (1433.5 per 100,000 adult population).
  • Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up only 2.3 percent of the Australian adult population, they accounted for 27.4 per cent of all prisoners. (Note: the Indigenous population is heavily skewed to younger ages, with the national percentage of population about 3 percent.)
  • After adjusting for differences in population age structures, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults was 13 times the rate for non‑Indigenous adults.

Let’s be clear about what these figures say: more than one-quarter of people in Australian prisons are Indigenous, a rate more than ten times (1000%) their population percentage. When age is adjusted (thus comparing “like with like”), the figures are even worse: thirteen times (1300%). But it gets worse.  The report also states that:

  • Between 2000 and 2013, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased by 57.4 per cent while the non-Indigenous rate remained fairly constant, leading to a widening of the gap (from 8.5 to 13.0 times the rate for non-Indigenous adults).

What this means is that Indigenous imprisonment rates have GONE UP by 50% in the last 13 years, while non-Indigenous rates have REMAINED THE SAME throughout the same period. In other words, the figures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have gotten worse and not just a little – A LOT worse. You can track the inexorable year by year growth of Indigenous imprisonment through the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. Although there are some state variations (Tasmania is the best, Western Australia is the worst), this is a systemic national problem which demands a national solution.

Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, calls these figures a “catastrophe in anyone’s language”, pointing out in December 2014 that “we do better at keeping Aboriginal people in prison than in school”. He also noted that almost half of Australians in juvenile detention are Indigenous – so the trend does not look like reversing any time soon.

The Creative Spirits website summarises a number of inter-related factors for these high rates: stolen generations, disconnection from land, police behaviour, offence criminalisation, poverty and unemployment, language difficulties, foetal alcohol syndrome and poor housing. A significant number of Indigenous Australians are incarcerated for trivial offenses that rarely impact non-Indigenous people, including unpaid fines, unlicensed driving, not receiving court mail, not attending court and “disorderly conduct”. One common theme in these offenses is poverty: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to avoid jail for small offences.

These results are terrible in themselves, but three factors arise that underline their significance:

First, this increase in Indigenous imprisonment could have been avoided through a careful analysis of why, where and how Indigenous people are put in prison or into the juvenile justice system (where they now represent up to one-half of participants), and crafting appropriate responses.

Secondly, as the Productivity Commission report drily states (page 4.102), “Imprisonment has a heavy social and economic impact. High rates of imprisonment remove adults from their important roles caring for the next generation and can lead to the ‘normalisation’ of incarceration among community members.”

Thirdly – and most insidious of all – the high rate of imprisonment affects how we non-Indigenous Australians view Indigenous people. Although the comparison is not complete, rates of imprisonment of African-Americans in the USA run six times those of whites in that country. The result there means that, as Professor Heather Thompson (Temple University) points out, there is a “disproportionate policing” of young black men and women, and that in turn “sends a signal to the broader society that there is something inherently criminalistic about black people”. She calls the American rates of imprisonment a “mass incarceration” with unknown outcomes; surely the same applies to Indigenous Australians.

We can do better and improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rates of imprisonment. For the sake of creating an equal and just Australia, we must.


Addendum:  In order to change the situation of mass incarceration of racial minorities, “we must change the narrative”.  So says, lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson, who gives a stirring 53 minute talk about American racial justice and imprisonment, which you can listen to on ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program podcast (originally broadcast on 19th March 2015).  Stevenson points out that great literature helps to change the narrative of issues so that we can see them in new ways.  We need to “understand how the world is being sustained by things (narratives) that make us indifferent to inequality” and mass incarceration.  He points out that in the USA, this is “the function of 40 years of the politics of fear and anger.  When people are afraid and angry, they will tolerate abuse and violations of rights.”  Deep and insightful words that have a strong resonance here in Australia.

Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (published 2014), is also available here in Australia.

Martin Luther King’s frequently quoted statement that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (from his “God is marching on” speech) may give us some hope.  But complacency has no place in the lack of progress on incarceration of Indigenous Australians.  For, as King also said, ““We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”  (from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech)

Indigenous imprisonment in Australia

March 12, 2015

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates have been steadily rising and are worse than any time in recent memory.  This is a national problem that demands a national solution.

I have just published an opinion piece on this topic in Open Forum, entitled “Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration”.

I have also re-posted the full article on this blog, along with a short addition.

I encourage you to read it.

Cyberterrorism – the new digital scourge

August 14, 2013

Suddenly it’s everywhere.

Cyberterrorism, it’s the new digital scourge.

Is it just an accident that in the last day I, (a) finished an article in The New Yorker (of May 20, 2013) by John Seabrook entitled “Network Insecurity: Are we losing the battle against cyber crime?”, and (b) listened to a lecture on the Australian ABC Radio National’s “Big Ideas” program, entitled “Cyber attacks: How war and economics are being transformed by computerisation”, given by Scott Borg.

Seabrook reports (in part) on an interview with Eric Grosse, a Google software engineer who heads up that company’s security team. Grosse’s comments on passwords:

He hopes to get rid of passwords, or at least reduce their importance in the “line of defense”. In the short term, however, the answer is more of them and not less, including the “two step verification” (including a mobile phone text message) that is becoming popular with Australian banks when making transfers to someone else’s account.

“The biggest problem is people can’t be expected to remember two hundred passwords. I mean, I have two hundred passwords, and they’re all different and they’re all strong.”

“How do you remember them?”

“I have to write them down.”

“But then that piece of paper could be stolen.”

“Yeah, but if your adversary is somebody on the other side of the ocean he can’t get the piece of paper you have in a safe at home. If you’re trying to guard against your roommate, then you need a new roommate.”

Wise words, those.

And Scott Borg? He is the Director and Chief Economist of the non-profit (501c3) U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit (US-CCU). His lecture, downloadable (at least for a few weeks) reviews the economic impacts of cyberterrorism, which he – frighteningly describes as having greater potential impacts than a nuclear bomb. He describes in great detail the implications of what would happen if all of the electrical power plants in a country (say, Australia) were to be remotely disabled.

Don’t believe me; listen to the lecture to find out.

Walking and seeing the city, part 2: crime in New York City

January 15, 2012

In my two months in New York City last year, with up to two hundred hours spent walking the streets, approximately 250 subway rides and visits to every borough of the City, I am pleased to say that I did not see one crime committed, nor the evidence of any crimes.  I was never threatened, or felt threatened and of the many thousands of local residents and visitors, I found an astonishing lack of concern for safety.  I walked in Central Park more than twenty times, about half of them very early in the morning.  I saw many single women on their own, older people, young kids walking to school and the great range of people.  In other words, people in New York City are not scared.

It was not always thus.  I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the post-war years; the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were not kind to the City of New York.  In fact, according to crime statistics, the crime rates of New York steadily rose and only started to drop in 1990.  Yes, this also happened around the United States, but they dropped even faster in New York City.  Here are some useful links:

– A 2004 paper entitled “The Remarkable Drop in Crime in New York City”

– The Wikipedia entry on crime in New York City

– Heather McDonald’s City Journal article on New York police

– And especially, the October 2011 book The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control  by University of California criminologist Franklin E. Zimring , which has been extensively discussed in the media – see the New York Times and KQED.

Zimring particularly identifies the role of policing.  Check out the Oxford University Press links to a number of supporting tables.  And here’s a simple set of tables: New York Police Department borough by borough law enforcement staffing from 1990 to 2009 – a full twenty year period.  What we find here is that police numbers have risen from 25,839 in 1990 to 35,628 in 2009, an increase of almost 38 percent – paralleling the drop in crime.  Zimring examines all sorts of factors, including use of illegal drugs (not down by much, but drug-related violent crime sure is), the number of people in jail: again, New York has released far more people than most other places in the United States – meaning that the objective of putting problem people in jail as a way to reduce crime simply is not the answer.  What appears to be the answer is the sort of intensive policing of identified crime “hot” spots, and the result appears to be that when a “crime is prevented on 125th Street, it does NOT go to 140th Street”, according to Zimring.

And that’s one thing I observed in New York this (northern) autumn: large numbers of police.  Sure, we were there for the tenth anniversary of September 11th, and for a UN General Assembly vote on Palestine, but the numbers are substantial, visible and impressive.  It’s interesting that more jurisdictions, including here in Australia, are not following the New York methodology more closely.