The Hunter has become a major provider of jails in recent years as the NSW prison population has soared, growing by 25 per cent in the past decade. Yet crime rates in NSW are falling.
Are all the baddies locked up, meaning our streets are safer? Or have the shock jocks won the day with their paparazzi-style scrutiny of our courts, manic barracking for denial of bail, and high-pitched screaming for tougher sentencing? Are we filling our jails for no good reason?
Don Weatherburn was director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics for 30 years. He has released a new book, co-authored by fellow statistician Sara Rahman. Their book is called The Vanishing Criminal. It runs the ruler over the state of crime in Australia and comes to some remarkable conclusions.
The book opens with an account of crime in Australia in the last decades of last century. Break and enter, car theft, robbery, assault, sexual assault, fraud, drug dealing, all were on the rise. And violent, very public, homicides seemed to have become commonplace. In 1984 rival bikie gangs shot each other to pieces at the Viking Hotel at Milperra in western Sydney.
Then 1987 delivered the Hoddle Street and Queen Street massacres in Melbourne. Underworld gangs and drug lords went shot for shot in both cities. A judge, an assistant police commissioner, a member of parliament, a famous surgeon, were murdered. And 35 people were slaughtered in 1996 at Port Arthur in Tasmania.
Governments eventually took action. Police resources were expanded, policing powers strengthened. Gun ownership laws were tightened. Courts and prisons became congested and overcrowded as a consequence.
A captivating thing about the book is its forensic account of the reasons underpinning the crime drop.
But then something remarkable happened. In the three years between 1999 and 2002 crime rates started to fall, by a lot, across almost all categories of crime, across all states of Australia, and they have been falling ever since. The Vanishing Criminal searches for an explanation. A captivating thing about the book is its forensic account of the reasons underpinning the crime drop, with each crime category having its own folder of detective work.
Some myths are exploded. The removal of lead from petrol, with lead thought to impede brain development and incite violent behaviour, came too late to explain falling assault rates. Teenage alcohol abuse has actually declined, meaning crime incidence for 15 to 19 year olds has fallen more than any other age group.
Solid facts about crime are confirmed. Crack downs on heroin availability coincide with falls in drug-related burglary and violence. Reduced alcohol consumption corresponds directly with reduced public assault rates. Improvements in home security discourage burglars. Cars with engine immobilisers don't get stolen. Stricter gun laws have worked. A strong Australian economy with low levels of unemployment has been as a major contributor to fewer burglaries and car thefts. And a more professional, less corrupt, police force is better at its job, thankfully.
Some findings are novel.
Older technologies aren't popular with crooks, with video games displaced as the loot of choice in the early 2000s by the DVD player, then, in turn, by the iPod, and finally by smart phones and tablets over the past decade. Less cash in our wallets and purses has meant fewer street assaults and robberies.
The arrival of encrypted smart phones has taken drug traffickers off the streets, meaning territorial wars among dealers have disappeared. And the capacity of emergency units to heal severe trauma patients has meant, simply, fewer homicides.
There are exceptions to the fall-off in crime.
Sadly, sexual assault rates continue to rise, as does the rate of domestic violence. Some new crimes are on the up, like credit card fraud and internet scams. And, say the authors, we need to be wary of the possibility of amphetamine abuse setting off a new wave of violent crime.
But what does the book say about imprisonment?
Does putting more people in the slammer have a deterrent effect, take the crims off the streets, teach offenders a lesson such that repeat offending is less likely?
The book says it doesn't know the answers to these questions, that we need to take a closer look.
Which begs the question, so who are we locking up in record numbers?
Phillip O'Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University
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