The ancestral home of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne has a museum with graphic depictions of the modes of punishment of his time. Montaigne was one of the leading intellectual forces in the Renaissance in France. He wrote about law and order, crime and punishment and sought a more humane regime.
"How many condemnations I have witnessed more criminal than the crime!" Montaigne wrote in 1588. He was referring to the racks, garrotes, blades, knee splitters and chairs of torture in use then because administrators wanted to be seen to be tough on crime.
So after a sobering visit to the magnificent château it was depressing to hear NSW Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell on March 20th promise a more severe policing regime than his opponents in next Saturday's election.
Depressing because most voters actually know little about the causes and effects of crime and punishment. And what they do know is often wrong. As Montaigne – a reformist mayor of Bordeaux as well as a philosopher – also said, "Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know".
What we should know is that more police and more prisons are seldom cost effective. Each inmate costs the public purse more than $50,000 each year – sometimes a greater sum than the amount involved in the original crime.
Higher imprisonment rates do not make communities safer. The USA imprisons 756 people for every 100,000 in the population. Australia imprisons 129 and France 96. The USA is no safer for its vast prisons network. The opposite is true.
Gaols are often used as part of the oppression of racial minorities. Here in France, Muslims comprise about 6% of the population but 56% of prisoners. Aborigines in NSW make up only 2.1% of the population but are 21.3% of prisoners. For Indigenous men, the percentage is higher. Half of all juvenile detainees are Aboriginal kids. These rates are rising, not falling.
Prisons continue to be schools for crime. Many of those released from NSW prisons reoffend within a year. This also is a global problem. A document released by WikiLeaks last December quotes (a senior French official reporting that "It is often the shock of prison, detailed the RG report, that transforms petty criminals into Islamic extremists".
NSW for all its trumpeted failures under Labor has not had a law and order crisis. The auditor general's 2010 report to Parliament shows the overall crime rate in New South Wales was stable or has fallen compared with previous years.
A report from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research states that "property crime has declined 5.6% over the past 24 months, while personal crime and alcohol related assault remained stable over the same period".
The Auditor-General's report affirmed that NSW had some of the best results for court timeliness in Australia. It found also that the state performs better than the national rate for successful community correction orders, 80.0% to 71.2%.
These were the positives. On the negative side, the proportion of the adult population sent to prison was 11.6% above the national rate. And the state's rate of an individual's return to prison, 42.9%, was higher than the national average of 39.3%.
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