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Do as the Portuguese, and decriminalise personal drug use to reduce prison population

11 April 2015 180 views One Comment

The British established a prison colony in Australia in 1788 because they ran out of prison capacity in Britain, and America was no longer available after the 1776 revolution. But the fact incarceration had failed to dent Britain’s huge social and economic problems has not stopped successive Australian governments trying to solve our own problems by imprisoning more people.

It’s an admission of failure and a national disgrace. Recently in Australia, incarceration rates increased from 158.8 per 100,000 in 2004 to 185.6 last year. This is an area where growth is a serious problem. That’s a 17 per cent ­increase, and the situation is ­getting worse.

While Victoria has the highest percentage of privatised prisoners in the world, in NSW the number of adult inmates in prison is nearing a record 12,000. This represents not just an extravagant waste of money but also an enormous waste of human potential. At an estimated annual cost of at least $75,000 a prisoner, it is also a drain on the public purse when governments have been telling the community — some would argue incorrectly — that we are drowning in government debt.

The situation is much worse in the US, which imprisons a huge 754 per 100,000 — the highest in the world. This means that while the land of the free and the home of the brave has 4.4 per cent of the world’s population, it houses 22 per cent of the world’s inmates.

With 2.3 million incarcerated, there are more Americans imprisoned than in the military. Indeed, mass incarceration there gobbles up $US60.3 billion ($78bn) in ­annual budget expenditure.

In Australia, we urgently need to reduce the burgeoning numbers of our prison population, which is a direct result of “law and order auctions at state and federal levels. This is promulgated by all major political parties, which — when crime rates are falling — try to outbid each other when it comes to tougher sentences.

This splurge on punishment is utterly unsustainable. But there are some clear-cut solutions that could save this waste. We should be looking to increase substantially the use of non-custodial ­sentences. And where our courts decide that they have no alternative except to send people to jail, in most cases we need shorter, not longer, sentences.

We also need to have far fewer people on remand. This is especially important as a significant number of these inmates — who comprise up to a third of our prison population — are eventually found not guilty.

As well as a bipartisan approach to reduce the use of remand, we need to lower our very high reoffending rates, which are higher than most other comparable countries. We need to make sure people in jail receive help. This especially applies to literacy and numeracy, and also with regard to alcohol and drug programs. Moreover, inmates ought to continue to receive assistance after being released.

More widely, we need to tackle structural inequality in our society. This is because the socially and economically disadvantaged sections of our nation have by far the highest rates of incarceration.

Without a doubt we need to reform our drug laws. In my opinion, this should be along the lines of Portugal, which in 2001 introduced laws that referred people found in possession of less than 10 days’ supply of any illegal drug for a health and social assessment and possible treatment. As a result, drug treatment fac­il­ities were expanded and improved. Not only has the crime rate fallen, but deaths from HIV and drug-use have declined markedly.

While a socialist government introduced the Portuguese scheme to decriminalise personal drug use, it was kept essentially intact when government changed hands. It has a high level of support across the political spectrum and throughout the wider community.

Importantly, in Portugal, all the huge savings made by reducing the costs of law enforcement and imprisonment are spent on public health.

To reduce the mass incarceration that occurs throughout Australia, we urgently need to adopt the Portuguese model. This especially applies to our disadvantaged communities, such as those in the Northern Territory.

The Portuguese scheme ought to be combined with raising the price of low-cost alcoholic bever­ages, which would reduce consumption significantly.

If that occurred, and as a result Aboriginal Australians had a similar incarceration rate as non-­Aboriginal Australians, just imagine the funds that would become available for improving the health and wellbeing of indigenous people.

Reducing the number of Australians behind bars is something that should appeal to all of us.

The savings in government expenditure would delight fiscal conservatives. People focused on social justice would be delighted to see less disparity between high and low-income groups.

Australians who focus on families would enjoy seeing fewer husbands and wives separated.

They would also rejoice in witnessing fewer parents and children separated and hence not caught up in a vicious cycle of crime and punishment.

In terms of meaningful solutions to mass incarceration we need look no further than the ideas of US Attorney-General Eric Holder. In a seminal article for ‘The Washington Post’ last month, Holder wrote, “a rare consensus has emerged in favour of ­reforming our federal drug ­sentencing laws.

This presents, he argues, a historic opportunity to reform the criminal justice system in ­the US. Eighteen months ago, this enlightened federal official launched a “Smart on Crime initiative that focused on reducing the use of draconian mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offences. It also involved ­substantial investment in alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs that reduced the likelihood of recidivism.

Preliminary results from this effort have been extremely encouraging. Remarkably, last year marked the first simultaneous ­reduction in crime and ­incarceration rates in more than four decades.

If they can do this in crime-­conscious America, there is surely nothing to stop us doing it here.

Author of 36 books, Ross Fitzgerald was for 20 years a member of the Queensland Parole Board and the NSW State Parole Authority.

The Weekend Australian, April 11-12, 2015, Inquirer, p 24.

One Comment »

  • Alex Wodak said:

    Portuguese solution

    There is a growing consensus that Australia cannot police its way out of our drug problems (“Do as the Portuguese, and decriminalise personal drug use to reduce prison population”, 11/4). Incarcerating increasing numbers for drug offences is not just ineffective and wasteful, it is also harmful. Partners and children are also damaged when a loved adult goes to jail. There will always be a need for prisons, but why are they exempt from consideration of costs and benefits when we discuss the need for “tougher” responses?

    Alex Wodak, president, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Darlinghurst, NSW

    The Australian, Letter to the Editor April 13, 2015, p 11

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