What does the public think prisons are for?

The Australian Institute of Criminology has a new report out on public perceptions of crime levels and the performance of courts, prisons and police.

One curious result in the AIC survey is that while there is strong majority support for tougher sentencing (though it has trended down since the 1980s), most people say that they have ‘not very much confidence’ or no confidence in the prison system as a way of rehabilitating prisoners, of punishing them, of deterring future offending, or of teaching skills to prisoners. So perhaps the only thing prisons do effectively is keep habitual offenders off the streets for a while.

Except for protecting defendants’ rights, there is not much confidence in the court system either. Only the barest majority (51.5%) agrees with the proposition that the courts ‘deal with matters fairly’, and certainly not promptly, with only 22% of people believing that the courts deal with matters quickly. I wonder if this has implications for the bill/charter of rights debate. It’s not just that the public might not believe that the courts would do a good job in balancing rights. It’s that the courts could do without further possible causes of diminished public standing.

26 Responses to “What does the public think prisons are for?

  • 1
    Russell
    May 27th, 2009 22:25

    “Only the barest majority (51.5%) agrees with the proposition that the courts ‘deal with matters fairly’, ”
    I couldn’t see any reasons given for this, but I suspect one of them would be that the people with the most money can hire the best lawyers. And that the Departments of Public Prosecutions, who can’t match the salaries of the best private lawyers, will always be at a disadvantage when pursuing well-heeled crooks.
    But would that apply in any/many ‘rights’ cases that would become before the courts?

  • 2
    conrad
    May 28th, 2009 06:38

    “So perhaps the only thing prisons do effectively is keep habitual offenders off the streets for a while.”
    .
    That attitude is certainly incorrect (unless it creates more crime). Even if prison does nothing, since crime rates and age are well correlated, simply sticking people in prison should reduce crime just due to the time factor.
    .
    “I wonder if this has implications for the bill/charter of rights debate.”
    .
    I doubt it — if people cared about fairness, then surely they wouldn’t want harsher sentences, since it would mean people being unfairly locked up (the unfair-to-the-criminal side of unfairness). But that isn’t the case — it appears people are quite happy to have harsher sentences in an unfair system. Stalin would be impressed.
    .
    A more important reason that I don’t think attitudes to crime would wreck support for a bill/charter of rights is that, at least in my imagination, most of the stuff wouldn’t be to do with criminal behavior, and some of it should make the system fairer and less prone to bias (e.g., freedom of speech vs. laws against saying “offensive” things).

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    May 28th, 2009 07:26

    Russell – I’m not sure how to interpret it, though I suspect it has something to do with grieving families leaving court and telling the media that the punishment hasn’t been nearly tough enough. People look to the courts to even things up for them, and perceive it as unfair when that does not happen. The court system is designed to be fair to defendants, not those who think they have been wronged, though this has changed somewhat with things like victim impact statements.

    Conrad – To date, as I understand it most of the claims under the Victorian charter have been on criminal matters, though the courts have so far rejected all the attempts to use the charter in this way.

  • 4
    Rajat Sood
    May 28th, 2009 09:16

    I agree with your last comment, Andrew: maybe the expressed lack of confidence in the prison system is based on perceptions of inadequate sentences rather than prisons being an ineffective form of punishment per se. Of course the public hears that prisoners get to watch TV, exercise and play sports, read books, study courses and take drugs in prison, but I’m sure I for one would feel greater satisfaction with the justice system if people got heavier sentences. My sense from listening to news stories of sentencing outcomes is that sentences in Victoria are approximately half what I think is reasonable. Why does this happen?

  • 5
    M
    May 28th, 2009 09:37

    I see it as several separate but related issues.

    Crime deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation.

    I’m not convinced there is any effective form of deterrence for the people who consider themselves outside the law (eg stats suggest even the death penalty is ineffective).

  • 6
    Fitzroyalty
    May 28th, 2009 10:37

    I’m not sure there is the hard evidence to support it, but I would hypothesise that the majority of prisoners are from low socio-economic backgrounds (with the exception of white collar crime like fraud).

    This is because many of the crimes that lead to imprisonment are drug and property related. I think it is a waste of our taxes to imprison people for non violent and / or victimless crimes like drug dealing.

    Gaol should be for violent predatory criminals primarily to separate those sociopaths who cannot control their behaviour from society to protect the law abiding majority.

    Instead they are currently used as crude facilities to manage the underclass who no longer have any productive role in our post-industrial economy.

    Acting to avoid a deterrent requires the kind of rational thinking involving delayed gratification and self restraint that people with comparatively lower intelligence and poorer social and life skills are simply not capable of.

    For some of them prison is hardly a punishment as it offers as good or better a standard of living as they are otherwise capable of providing for themselves.

    Rehabilitation is inadequate, but then many of the prisoners would not have the mental capacity to benefit from further education and training and so providing it to them is a waste of our taxes.

  • 7
    Rajat Sood
    May 28th, 2009 12:00

    Fitzroyalty, then what should be done about people who continually commit ‘non-violent’ crimes, such as thieving and destroying property or order to feed a drug habit or otherwise? A community work order might be fine for the first couple of offences, but what happens beyond that or if they just don’t turn up?

  • 8
    M
    May 28th, 2009 13:47

    IF we just want to separate off the undesirable elements of society then transportation/banishment to a island to the south might be an option.

  • 9
    Pete from Perth
    May 28th, 2009 19:31

    Having served jury duty a couple of times, I know there’s no way I’d want my own guilt or innocence being determined by the legal system I saw.

  • 10
    invig
    May 29th, 2009 10:38

    Fitzroyalty,

    I agree with part of what you say, in that some small proportion of people are so genetically/socially unfit as to remain awkward members of society. I myself fall somewhat into the socially unfit category.

    There should also be acknowledgment of the supremely amazing organism that a person represents, and the potential of most anyone to do incredible things. That is extremely important to facilitate; especially for criminals who are otherwise very talented at being a huge burden.

    More generally however, there should be an awareness that the stupidest and poorest are reproducing with the least awareness of consequences and at the fastest rate. I strongly support parental licensing (with bribery to NOT have children) and forced sterilisation should this be contravened.

    While child abuse is hugely expensive to deal with, gradual retardation of the population through reverse-evolution is even more insidious. And it IS happening. I have spoken to a lady working as a carer and she says that barely-intelligent people have no problem having repeat pregnancies when they cannot care for their previous babies and/or their offspring have genetic afflictions. It gives them welfare support, someone to share their misery with, a socially-accepted role as a ‘parent’ (however incompetent) and – above all – something to DO (many of these idiots cannot even maintain a relationship with a drug dealer).

  • 11
    Fitzroyalty
    May 29th, 2009 12:52

    Decriminalising drugs and removing the black market will reduce a lot of petty crime like small scale theft. Drugs are not the problem – their artificially inflated cost is.

    The incentives for the underclass currently encourage them to reproduce and these need to be reversed. They should only get the dole while on contraception (Implanon for women, the new injections for men).

    I don’t think reproduction is a right, and people already subsisting on welfare should not be able to increase the burdon they impose on us by reckless breeding.

    We should be spending more on mental health care to help those people who self medicate with street drugs because they don’t get proper care.

  • 12
    invig
    May 29th, 2009 14:45

    The incentives for the underclass currently encourage them to reproduce and these need to be reversed. They should only get the dole while on contraception (Implanon for women, the new injections for men).

    Nice. Less final than sterilisation. more likely to be adopted. But still, I think we need some proper analysis of what (the hell) is going on with reproduction in this country. At least give people a wake up call; perhaps with some projections…

  • 13
    Alexander
    May 30th, 2009 04:30

    Nasty and cruel. Fitzroyalty suggests decriminalising drugs to avoid small scale theft, and then telling people they can’t get any money (necessary for food, a roof etc.) unless they’re on contraception. What does he suppose this will result in?

    Even if you don’t think reproduction is a right, there are valid religious, personal or ethical objections to taking drugs or using contraception.

    Of course, if this goes through all the sensible people who object to being forced to take contraceptives will find themselves locked up in prison with a bunch of people of the same sex, making reproduction impossible.

    Another alternative could be to force new parents who’s child was conceived while they were on the dole to give the child up for adoption; there’s plenty of willing “desirable” parents. One advantage of this approach will be to help unify indigenous Australians with mainstream ones: a second stolen generation!

    There is no ethical way to control conception by force.

  • 14
    Fitzroyalty
    May 30th, 2009 15:16

    I think it’s naive to consider it possible to find perfect solutions to comples social problems.

    The current sets of drugs that are legal and illegal are so simply due to historical contingency and moral hypocrisy.

    Some people (who we call the underclass) simply do not have the intelligence or social capacity to function in our complex society.

    We need to acknowledge this and start developing pragmatic solutions BEFORE the welfare burdon on taxpayers becomes unsustainable.

    In my more cynical moments I am convinced that we are going to experience a ‘correction’ in the social order in our lifetimes that will make the current economic conditions seem trivial.

    Everyone’s living standards would crash if we allow our social order to become economically unstable and unviable.

  • 15
    invig
    May 30th, 2009 16:33

    Alexander,

    Would it be more acceptable to have a education/licensing process for parents?

    Since many who are rich are not emotionally equipped to have children either. Some friends of mine have been on and off welfare, and heroin, for years, yet they have 3 of the happiest and well-adjusted kids I have seen. In fact, it can be wonderful to see someone high on heroin playing with kids. Not that I like to associate with them myself when they’re in that state, but it does tend to assist in meeting the child’s joyous state at an equal level.

    So I agree that linking welfare with conception may lead to many problems. But a pregnancy license? Is that a better approach? Can’t all this psychometric stuff be useful for something?

    In fact, as I said on a previous post here, I think there should be an option for women to become ‘community-mothers’ and for other working women to put their children into the care of such people while at work. ‘Community-mothers’ would not be ’employed’ in the usual sense, but still be fulfilling an important role.

    This would somewhat confuse the parental licensing question however; although it would perhaps lower the burdEn(spelling!) of proof for good parenting if others could supply some of the love and affection. Still, in many of these cases it is the man who fails, and no harem of women can replace a solid male role model (especially for boys!)

  • 16
    invig
    May 30th, 2009 17:50

    Actually, on reflection, the welfare is more of the middle class handout type. The guy has been employed full time ever since I’ve known him.

  • 17
    Alexander
    May 30th, 2009 17:54

    What good will a pregnancy licence do? It’ll just create blackmarket children. How do you punish the parents without harming the children? How many children will die because unlicensed parents are too scared to take them to get the medical care they need? Some may even miss school! It won’t solve the problems you’ve identified from the current system; at best, it will just create new ones.

    Reproduction is a right, because most couples can do it, it’s natural to want to do it, and there’s no way to stop people from doing it.

  • 18
    Alexander
    May 30th, 2009 18:10

    How many children will die because unlicensed parents are too scared to take them to get the medical care they need? Some may even miss school!

    For the sake of clarification, I didn’t mean to say that missing school is worse than death, but that some children may even stay under the radar for years, and so they don’t get enrolled into school.

    It will just create another underclass of people. The suburbs these families live in will just be the breeding ground for more criminals.

    But I have nothing in principle against welfare money being conditional on attending parental education classes, as long as it’s possible for them to actually attend the classes.

  • 19
    invig
    May 30th, 2009 18:42

    Reproduction is a right, because most couples can do it, it’s natural to want to do it, and there’s no way to stop people from doing it.
    .
    So its not a ‘right’, but more of a ‘damned hard to stop’.
    .
    In general, your criticisms are entirely correct. However the desirability of controlling fertility makes it important enough to build communities around.
    .
    Without getting too utopian, I believe the answer lies in creating local communities that people want to belong to (because services are delivered through them, and they are a source of friendship), and that can monitor behaviour; including but not limited to pregnancy.
    .
    In times past, I don’t doubt that a tribe would have controlled its fertility rates, and chosen who was allowed to give birth. I think we could recreate such an environment, and integrate it with my ‘community-mother’ idea.
    .
    But just to reiterate, I agree with your prediction of a ‘black market’ of unregistered children: and it probably happened in China, where control is much more draconian than we in Australia would be willing to accept.
    .
    (sorry about the spaces Andrew, but it makes the posts easier to read)

  • 20
    Alexander
    May 30th, 2009 22:20

    So its not a ‘right’, but more of a ‘damned hard to stop’.

    That’s not nearly a summary of what you quoted. It only accounts for one of my points, and even there it reduces it from “no way” to “damned hard”. What makes something a right? Having a family is a very basic, fundamental right. Much more basic than something as abstract as a right to freedom of speech.

    Without getting too utopian, I believe the answer lies in creating local communities that people want to belong to (because services are delivered through them, and they are a source of friendship), and that can monitor behaviour; including but not limited to pregnancy.

    I very much like that suggestion. (Most) Australian cities, let alone Australia itself, is too big and abstract to fulfil that role. In times past churches did. It would have a range of useful functions to society; providing advice to those contemplating a new child would be one of the les important ones.

  • 21
    invig
    May 31st, 2009 10:27

    For the joy of arguing:)

    That’s not nearly a summary of what you quoted.

    So what is a ‘right’? Something most people ‘want’ to do COMBINED WITH something we ‘can’t stop’?

    Where is the principle behind that?

    I’m sure most people don’t particularly want to stay 100% monogamous, and we certainly can’t stop infidelity – but that doesn’t make it a right.

    I think my statement is not a summary, but a clarification of the difference between what we should accept as a right (i.e. principle dictates it should remain completely up to the individual), accept as inevitable (the cost of control is not worth the benefit) and that which can be managed, and is important enough to make the attempt.

  • 22
    invig
    June 4th, 2009 10:45

    *ahem*

    Actually infidelity probably IS a right.

    (bad example)

  • 23
    Fitzroyalty
    June 10th, 2009 09:53

    Getting back to the original point, some common sense here about drugs and prison.

  • 24
    invig
    June 10th, 2009 13:11

    Yeah nice catch. Maybe one day people will wake up.

  • 25
    Rajat Sood
    June 10th, 2009 13:30

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with locking (guilty) people up to keep them off the streets. Gittins doesn’t actually provide any evidence that his preferred rehab solutions will be any more successful. And of course deterrence is only one rationale for imprisonment. Frankly, if someone were to beat up me or any member of my family to the point of a hospital admission, I believe as a matter of principle that the person should see a very significant amount of gaol time, whether or not it deters them or others from (re)offending. Incidentally, it’s funny how Gittins suddenly becomes such a fiscal conservative when it aligns with his bleeding heart views.

  • 26
    JC
    June 10th, 2009 18:41

    Exactly Rajat… retribution is a necessary part of it having a suitable conviction.

    Violent crime is too easily treated in Australia.