Sentencing policies, past and present

So, there’s one piece of infrastructure the Baillieu government wants to fund, urgently – another jail. Oh great. The state is screaming out for schools, hospitals, rail lines, bike paths, public housing…and the government wants to build a prison?

The reasons why the government is expecting to need more prison beds in the future is pretty obvious – the population pressures affecting every other government service, and the “tough on crime” sentencing policies. That, and the existing jails are full.

But why are the existing jails full? Surely that previous namby-pamby Labor government was releasing prisoners left, right and centre?

That’s not what the data suggests.

The Victorian Department of Justice produces a statistical summary for Victoria’s prison system.

It shows that from the Victorian prison population increased from about 3,153 prisoners in July 2000, to 4,537 in July 2010. Much of that can be explained by the increase in Victoria’s population, but not all; the incarceration rate (prisoners per 100,000 head of population) increased from 85.4 to 105.5.

That’s right, the proportion of Victorians in jail increased substantially in the last decade.

It gets even more interesting when you look at what prisoners are in for.

Some simple manipulation of the data gets the imprisonment rate for various offence classes – that is, the number of people in jail for a particular offence class per 100,000 head of population:

Note the big increase in incarceration rates for two classes of crime: assaults and sex crimes. It’s even more dramatic in this graph, which normalizes the rates to a 2000 baseline:

As you can see, the incarceration rate for sex crimes is more than 50% higher than it was in 2000, and the incarceration rate for assaults two and a half times higher than in 2000.

So, what’s going on? Is Victoria in the grip of an epidemic of assaults and sex crimes filling our jails?

Well, for them to actually fill our jails, they would actually have to be recorded as crimes by police (as we all know, particularly in the case of sex crimes so many go unreported). And the police crime statistics does show some evidence of an increase of these types of crimes, even allowing for population increase. Below is a graph of the annual incidence of three relevant offence categories, per 100,000 head of population:

Normalized to 2001 levels, the relative incidence rate shows an increase in )reported) rape and assault, but a reduction in the rate of other sex crimes:

Some increase, sure. But not nearly enough to explain the increase in prisoners in jail for these two classes of crime. Sentences for crimes in these categories must be getting harsher, either going from non-custodial to custodial sentences, or lengthier custodial sentences.

I can’t, from this fairly cursory examination of the data, find out whether this is due to crimes in these categories tending to become more severe, or whether sentencing for similar types of crimes attracting harsher sentences. But it’s hardly consistent with the hypothesis that the Bracks-Brumby government was a soft touch when it came to sentencing policy.

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7 Responses to Sentencing policies, past and present

  1. CrimeDime says:

    Excellent! Love the graphs.

  2. It’s great to see people examining the stats Robert and not just accepting everything reported in the media. In our Smart Justice fact sheet on prisons and why they aren’t the answer to reducing crime, we reference relevant reports intributing increases in prison population to changes in sentencing practices. The 2010 Department of Justice Annual report is also pretty upfront about the increase: ‘key drivers’ leading the growth have included ‘tougher and longer sentences’. Victoria’s prison population has increased 44% over the last 10 years with the rate of increase for women prisoners higher than the rate for male prisoners.

    • Thanks for the comment Michelle, I’ll look into your fact sheets.

      I guess that there’s no evidence that these changes in sentencing policies are actually reducing crime?

      • That’s right Robert. There’s research we quote in our fact sheet that suggests that increasing prison sentences doesn’t deter crime. Even in the Herald Sun poll last week, the majority of people responding didn’t think building new prisons would deter!

  3. wilful says:

    You’re sounding like An Onymous Lefty (Jeremy Sear).

    This is a compliment BTW. I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but he’s been ruthless in examining laura norder issues in Vic.

  4. Topher says:

    There is another possibility (although it’s not real likely) – that the police are getting better at catching sex offenders and violent offenders

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