Prison reform has returned to Canberra and we are advised indigenous detainees at the Alexander Maconochie Centre has risen to 27 percent of our prison population – up from an average of about 18 percent.
The figures are from a very small base, representing 96 people and most citizens would take the sensible attitude the increase was because more crimes were committed and punished.
The ACT is different from elsewhere in Australia however. Here we run an expensive ($150,000 per detainee as opposed to the national average of $110,000) “human rights” prison, thus the extra expense of jailing offenders does not appear to be working here in Canberra to the consternation of those seeking to reform.
Unfortunately there often is more hope than help in rehabilitation and while nobody should question well-meaning attempts to provide ex-prisoners with a purposeful life, surely with our concerns about the incarceration rate, indigenous or not, we shouldn’t be focussing upon our prison. Sentencing options should be the target.
Certainly on published figures we have a lower if increasing rate of detainees than the Australian average but then our population is smaller. This should not prevent us from examining our penalties and perhaps reducing them for some crimes. Yet even this worthwhile exercise raises other issues.
In small part Canberra has been affected and the AMC has been enlarged to incorporate this increase and while this might have created some extra jobs it is nothing like elsewhere in Australia, where many country towns have benefited economically from the building of a prison.
Some might claim the financial advantages of these rural developments encourages more sentences – after all these extra cells have to be filled – but isn’t it also true with increased population more people break the law, like the rising road toll from more traffic on the roads?
Whatever alternatives we apply to alleviate rising jail numbers I do not envy those tasked with reviewing sentencing options because society is not sympathetic. No matter what the media claim about cynical “law and order” elections by politicians they are effective because that is what most electors want. Just try running on a platform of no law and order!
There is distrust with lesser sentences, often fired up by criminals released only to reoffend and a belief among ordinary people those imposing sentences are removed from the realities of the real world.
Their lifestyles do not impact with the hoi polloi and they rarely suffer the senseless killing, raping or maiming too often the lot of the majority of the population. This is perhaps why the abolition of the death penalty was never taken to the people. The majority might just have supported its retention in certain circumstances.
By all means review sentencing options, including good behaviour, but remember inmates are in prison for a reason. They should not be figures to be manipulated to improve the release record and neither should they be seen, often by reformers, as those who deserve unqualified compassion.
File photo of Alexander Maconochie Centre by Charlotte Harper