Whatever might be said about its successes and failures, it’s clear that 25
years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
Australia has become much less compassionate, more punitive and more
ready to blame individuals for their alleged failings.
Nowhere is this clearer than in our desire for punishment. A harsh criminal
justice system – in particular, more prisons and people behind bars – has
apparently become a hallmark of good government.
This wasn’t always the case. But it just so happened that the royal
commission handed down its findings at a time when the politics of law and
order was rapidly changing.
Reform to intolerance
The 1970s through to the late 1980s was a period of criminal justice reform.
Decriminalisation of certain types of summary offences, such as public
drunkenness and prostitution; a commitment to reducing prison numbers
through the introduction of community service orders and other
non-custodial sentencing options; the development of mental health
services for offenders; specific programs for women prisoners; and
improved conditions for prisoners more generally: these wereBut, by the
late 1980s and early 1990s, changing political conditions were of the
criminal justice system.
This move toward “law and order” responses manifested in:
There was the need for “tougher” penalties, often based on political
expediency and media-fuelled public alarm over particular crimes.
While these administrative, legal and technical changes contributed to
increasing prison numbers, they also reflected a less tolerant and more
punitive approach to crime and punishment.
Put bluntly, the last 25 years have seen a spectacle of punishment most
graphically illustrated in climbing imprisonment rates. And these changes
were directly in opposition to the fundamental findings of the royal
commission, which advocated a reduction in Indigenous imprisonment
Such is the financial cost of our commitment to reducing re-offending, and
significantly contributes to the further marginalisation of those who are
These increases in imprisonment in Australia have been paralleled in other
countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand and,
more recently, Canada. It is this that has led these countries down the path
of a harsher approach to crime and punishment.
In contrast, European jurisdictions that have more social democratic and
corporatist forms of government have relied less on exclusionary and
punitive approaches to punishment.
But states that experienced a decline in principles and policies reflecting the
welfare state and embraced neoliberal notions had a realignment of values
and approaches that emphasised “deeds over needs”.
Their focus shifted from rehabilitative goals to an emphasis on deterrence
and retribution. Individual responsibility and accountability increasingly
became the core of the way justice systems responded to offenders.
Privatisation of institutions and services; widening social and economic
inequality; and new or renewed insecurities around fear of crime,
terrorism, “illegal” immigrants and racial, religious and ethnic minorities
have all impacted the way their criminal justice systems operate.
In understanding the use of imprisonment, one of the most important
points to grasp is that a rising imprisonment rate is not directly or simply
related to an increase in crime.
The use of prison is a function of government choices; it reflects
government policy and legislation, as well as judicial decision-making.
Imprisonment rates in Australia are, since increases in imprisonment rates
have continued while crime rates have levelled or fallen in many categories
of crime from 2000. Similar patterns The growth of the law-and-order
agenda has also resulted in far weaker ideological differentiation between
major political parties on criminal justice policy. The most politically
expedient response to crime is the promotion and implementation of the
While conservative political parties may have traditionally appeared to be
“tougher” on crime and punishment, many Australian states and territories,
such as New South Wales.