There are more people currently jailed than at any other time in Australian history. Despite falling crime levels, Australia’s incarcerated population has swelled to a record high of 38,685 this year.
Public spending on prisons is also booming, with the NSW government set to funnel an additional $3.8 billion over four years into expanding prison bed capacity to deal with overcrowding. None of this money will address the social roots of crime; instead it is ruining people’s lives and creating a layer of hardened repeat offenders who will have more difficulty reintegrating into society than when they were first locked up.
The massive increase in the imprisonment rate is chiefly a product of harsher sentencing, driven by demands for “law-and-order” from establishment politicians. When the major parties call for being tough on crime, however, what they really mean is being tough on the poor.
Legal aid funding has been gutted by both Liberal and Labor governments over the last 20 years, making quality legal representation unaffordable for most of the population. This means many people receive prison terms for minor transgressions as a result of being unable to put up a proper defence.
Figures show that over 30% of current inmates are in jail for petty non-violent crimes. By contrast wealthy criminals and unscrupulous businesses can often escape conviction for more serious offences by hiring the best lawyers that money can buy.
The link between systemic poverty and crime has been extensively studied in recent decades. It is no secret that low-income communities rife with unemployment and inadequate access to services are breeding grounds for both violent and non-violent crime to emerge. In Victoria for example, one-quarter of the prison population is comprised of people from the top 2% of the poorest postcodes.
Instead of investing to provide these areas with jobs and vital public facilities, all the major parties have attacked the welfare system and made it harder for people to access unemployment benefits, public housing, mental health services, and other provisions that were once supplied by the state.
It is little wonder that in such difficult circumstances people become alienated and turn towards crime or drug use as a means of coping. Prisons will do nothing for these people except foster a cynicism towards society and introduce them to a wider network of criminals. This is why Australia has such a high rate of recidivism – over 42% of inmates will reoffend within two years.
The recent surge in incarceration has hit the Aboriginal community particularly hard. Aboriginal people make up 28% of inmates but only 3% of the country’s population, and young Aboriginal people are now 26 times more likely to be placed in detention than the rest of the population aged 10-17.
These figures are a result of decades of racist government policies, including most recently the Northern Territory Intervention, which has seen more children forcibly taken from Aboriginal families than during the Stolen Generations. Right-wing media outlets use the staggeringly high levels of Aboriginal imprisonment to create a narrative that blames Aboriginal people for this situation.
Racism has long been a tool capitalists use in this way to excuse and justify systemic poverty, and to divert attention away from the class nature of the society we live in.
It is clear that the prison system is no solution to social woes. Contrary to what we are told, the main purpose of prisons in society is not to aid justice or act as a deterrent to prevent people from committing crimes. From the perspective of the ruling class, prisons are a convenient dumping ground for anyone who challenges or threatens their profits and property rights – from insolvent debtors to revolutionaries.
This becomes more obvious in periods of social upheaval when the government is forced to imprison activists and radicals to maintain its rule. But moreover, punitive ideas of justice serve a similar function to racism as a divide-and-rule tactic capitalists can use to artificially separate “criminals” from the rest of the working class.
Capitalism has no solution for the problems of crime and poverty. A socialist society based on democratically planning the economy is the only way to provide a quality standard of living for all, therefore eliminating the underlying conditions that generate anti-social behaviour and crime.
By Jeremy Trott