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Behind Bars

By Andrew Leigh - posted Wednesday, 10 November 2010

I spent the morning behind bars last week: a relatively unusual experience for a sitting politician. Opened in 2008, Canberra's new jail is one of a dozen or so correctional facilities that have opened across Australia in the past decade.

Building prisons is a growth industry because the number of inmates continues to grow. As James Eyers pointed out in this newspaper recently, the growth in Australia's prison population has been driven not by a rise in crime, but by law changes such as tougher bail conditions and mandatory non-parole periods.

As a result, Australia has 175 prisoners per 100,000 adults, up from 112 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 1990. For Indigenous Australians, the rate is up from 1758 to 2310 prisoners per 100,000 Indigenous adults. Put another way, one in 43 Indigenous Australians are presently behind bars. Among young Indigenous men, the share is 1 in 15.


As with many things - good and bad - the United States suggests what the future might hold for us. In a recent analysis, sociologists Bruce Western (Harvard) and Becky Pettit (University of Washington) point out that US jails currently hold over 2 million people, or 762 prisoners for every 100,000 adults. 

For some, the rate is substantially higher. Among men aged 20-34 who did not complete high school, the US imprisonment rate is a jaw-dropping 12 percent for whites and 37 percent for blacks.

And that's just the proportion behind bars on any given day. By the time black high school dropouts reach their mid-30s, Western and Pettit estimate that 69 percent will have been imprisoned. In other words, if you're a black man who doesn't finish high school, the odds are two in three that you'll see the inside of a prison cell. Overall, African-American incarceration rates are higher than for Indigenous Australians.

As Western and Pettit point out, one of the things that a high incarceration rate does is to make other statistics look good. For example, official employment surveys exclude the prison population. Among young black dropouts, the effect of adding prisoners back in is to reduce the employment rate for this group from 40 percent to 25 percent. The same is likely to be true of other measures, such as income inequality and ill health. Because numbers often drive policy, this kind of invisible disadvantage can readily be missed in public debates.

Another feature of persistently high incarceration rates is its intergenerational impact. In the US today, 2 percent of white children have a parent in jail. Among African-American children, the figure is 11 percent. In the US, around 1.2 million black children have a parent behind bars. While I was unable to find comparable statistics for Australia, anecdotal evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of Australian prisoners have children outside. Whatever your view on the impact of jail on those locked up, mass imprisonment of parents should be a concern to anyone who cares about breaking the intergenerational poverty cycle.

For the US, tight fiscal circumstances can have two possible impacts on prisons: less spending per inmate, or fewer inmates. So far, states seem inclined towards the former (a New York Times report last year revealed that Alabama budgets $1.75 per prisoner per day for food). However, it is possible that as the US downturn continues, it may prompt a broader rethink of the nation's prison policy.


In the Australian case, the total cost of prisons is nearly $3 billion per year, or about $100,000 per prisoner. Yet the real cost of incarceration comes afterwards, with ex-prisoners more likely to commit further crimes and less likely to find a job. While prison is a place of rehabilitation for some, others are scarred by the experience. Sexual violence in prison probably isn't as common as in the 1990s (when NSW magistrate David Heilpern estimated that one-quarter of young male prisoners were raped), but the rate is likely higher than in the outside world. And the median sentence length in Australia is 3 years, which means released prisoners often find that the only friends who haven't deserted them are the ones they made inside.

Getting prison policy right isn't easy, but if there's one country that can show the way, it should be Australia: the nation that showed the world that if they're given a chance, convicts can do just as well as anyone.

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This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review on November 9, 2010.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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