Tough on crime? An NM special investigation


On December 3 last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics put out a press release: for the first time, the number of adult Australians locked up when the bureau took its census on June 30 had exceeded 30,000. In fact, there were 30,775 people in prison last year and that figure doesn’t include psychiatric patients or juveniles. That's 5 per cent more prisoners than in 2012.

More than a quarter of all prisoners in Australia — 27 per cent — are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, which means that if you are an indigenous Australian you are 15 times more likely than a non-indigenous person to spend tonight in a prison.

You would think all of this would make news — but rarely does the media do more than run the statistics, and some do not even manage that. Prisons have become a hidden zone while law and order campaigns designed to win votes harden public attitudes.

But what are the stories behind the statistics? Who is in prison and why? What is the social and economic cost of imprisonment? How can crime rates fall and imprisonment rates rise? Does imprisonment reduce the likelihood of a person committing more crimes? What happens once prisoners have served their time?

In 2014, New Matilda’s investigative series on the criminal justice system will help fill these gaps.

We started this investigation in the midst of a populist push to introduce mandatory sentences for king hits in NSW. Now, it looks as though the worst of Barry O’Farrell’s ‘one punch’ laws have been quietly sidelined after pushback from the legal community and a failure to reach political consensus.

We still plan to cover the push towards mandatory sentencing later in the series — but today, we begin in the Northern Territory, where the imprisonment rate is Australia’s highest and Aboriginal people made up 86 per cent of the prison population as of June 30 last year, despite being less than 30 per cent of the general population.

A raft of measures to control alcohol abuse have been introduced by the Country Liberal Party government since it came to power on a law and order platform in August 2012. In practice, it’s clear that many of these measures target Aboriginal people. They dance dangerously close to being race-based laws.

As Lucy Watson and Marni Cordell report today, Aboriginal people in the territory are regularly being locked up for long periods without due process under the Alcohol Mandatory Treatment Act. Legal experts say the legislation’s ability to detain people without a court process or a lawyer present is unprecedented in Australian law.

Out on the streets, Aboriginal people are being targeted too. Frances Mao and Max Chalmers report on controversial new policing measures that are being used to prevent Aboriginal people from buying alcohol in Alice Springs.

Local doctor, Hilary Tyler, told NM the measures are already having a negative impact on the community. “There’s a sense [for Aboriginal people]of always being under surveillance, a sense of always being watched and assumed to be violent alcoholics. It’s always assumed … that you must not be able to drink responsibly, that you’re different from a non-Aboriginal person,” she said.

All of this is happening to very little media attention as those of us on the east coast engage in a debate about dismantling parts of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Alcohol abuse is an entrenched problem in the Northern Territory and there are no easy fixes (you can read our backgrounder on measures to combat the problem in the NT here). Regardless, judicial and policing measures that target a particular group — especially when that group is already over-represented in our prisons — must be scrutinised by the national media.

This series has been put together with the help of interns Frances Mao, Lucy Watson, Antoinette Milienos, Nick Rowbotham and Hannah Moore, as well as editorial assistant Max Chalmers. The investigation will continue throughout the year and we invite tip-offs, op-eds and expert opinions. Contact us if you would like to contribute to the discussion.

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