Australia's second convict age

Andrew Leigh: It doesn't have to be this way.

Australia has entered a second 'convict age', with the highest share of the population incarcerated than at any time since 1899.

That is the most general finding of a new paper by Andrew Leigh titled ‘The Second Convict Age: Explaining the Return of Mass Imprisonment in Australia’. Since 1985, the Australian incarceration rate has gone up an extraordinary 130 per cent. At present, some 0.22 per cent of Australian adults are behind bars. There is no apparent link between the increase in the prison population and crime rates, which have generally declined over the past generation. Rather, higher reporting rates, stricter policing practices, tougher sentencing laws, and more stringent bail laws appear to be the main drivers of Australia’s growing prison population.

More distressing, among Indigenous Australians, the incarceration rate is 2.5 per cent: 2481 prisoners per 100,000 adults. Almost one in four Indigenous men born in the 1970s will go to jail during their lifetime. Challenging the idea of Australia held by many, a higher share of Indigenous Australians is now incarcerated than African Americans.

Read the full paper.