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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1997  
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Contents >> Crime & Justice >> Corrective Services: Prisoners in Australia

Corrective Services: Prisoners in Australia

There were 16,800 prisoners in Australian prisons in June 1996, a rate of about 120 for every 100,000 adults in the population.

Australian courts have available to them a range of penalties to impose on those convicted of a crime. These range from fines and community service orders for relatively minor offences, to life imprisonment for the most serious.

People given prison sentences represent a minority of all persons convicted of criminal offences. It has been estimated that about 5-10% of all lower court convictions in 1995 resulted in a prison sentence1.

On the other hand, prisoners are made up of a high proportion of those convicted of serious offences: all murderers; virtually all serious sexual offenders; and the majority of armed robbers, are given prison sentences. Shorter prison sentences are also handed down for less serious offences than these. The length of a sentence varies according to the nature and severity of the offence, the offender's criminal record and any mitigating circumstances. The length and type of sentence for a given crime also differs between States.


Corrective services

Corrective services can be divided into four categories, distinguished by the degree to which they restrict a person's liberty and the activities they can undertake:2

Prisons are legally sanctioned facilities which hold offenders.

Periodic detention is currently available only to New South Wales courts. It involves persons being in custody for two consecutive days a week, remaining at liberty for the rest of the week. There were 1,291 prisoners in this category at the time of the 1994 Prison Census.

Community Custody Sentences are orders which deprive offenders of their liberty by confining their physical location to a facility, dwelling or property (which is not a secure facility) and/or requiring them to be under controlling supervision for more than 50% of the time.

Community Supervision Sentences are orders imposed by courts which prescribe conditions and place offenders under controlling supervision for less than 50% of the time.


Trends
During June 1996, there was a daily average of 16,806 prisoners in Australian prisons, up from 11,243 in June 1986 and 8,840 in June 1976. Imprisonment rates have also increased, from 91 persons for every 100,000 adults in the national population in 1976 to 96 persons in 1986 and 122 persons in 1996.

The increase in imprisonment rates, most evident since the mid 1980s, has occurred for a number of reasons. These include an increase in sentence length by some jurisdictions, an increase in the use of imprisonment for some crimes and the abolition of sentence-reducing mechanisms such as remission (time remitted from the sentence, typically for good behaviour). Even minor changes in sentencing can lead to large changes in prison numbers, since the minority of sentences (24%) are custodial2.

The general increase in the rate of imprisonment over the period from 1984 to 1994 occurred in almost every age group, and was particularly marked for those aged over 19 years. Against this trend, the rate of imprisonment was a little lower for those aged 17-18 years in 1994 than was the case in 1984, and only slightly higher for those aged 19 years. This decrease could be accounted for by the wider range of corrective service options available for young offenders.

The rate of imprisonment has increased over the last decade. While corresponding data for community-based corrections is not available over that period, there has been a slight decline in the proportion of the population serving community-based corrections in recent years. In 1992-93 there were 378 people per 100,000 population serving Community Supervision Orders, compared with 365 per 100,000 in 1995-96. About 3 people per 100,000 were serving Community Custody Orders in 1995-96.2

IMPRISONMENT RATE(a), JUNE DAILY AVERAGE


(a) Rate per 100,000 people aged 18 years or over.
Source: Salloom, S., Biles, D. and Walker, J., Australian Prison Trends; Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Prison Trends; Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Correctional Statistics: Prisons.

IMPRISONMENT RATES(a)


(a) Per 100,000 people in each age group.
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics Prisoners in Australia, 1994: Results of the 1994 National Prison Census; Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Prisoners 1984.


Age-sex profile of prisoners
Information about the characteristics of the prisoner population is available from the 1994 Prison Census. Nearly all prisoners at that time were men (95%), almost half of whom were aged between 20 and 29 years. The median age of prisoners (29 years), was relatively young compared with the median age for the adult population aged 17 and over (about 42 years).

The age profile for women was similar to that for men. The median age of female prisoners was 30 years, compared with 29 years for men. Only a small proportion of men and women in prison were aged 50 years or over.

This profile indicates that most serious crimes are committed by young men. This pattern is confirmed by the different rates of imprisonment for each sex and for older and younger age groups.

PROFILE OF PRISONERS, 1994

Age distribution
Imprisonment rates


Men
Women
Men
Women
Age group (years)
%
%
rate(a)
rate(a)

Under 20
5.7
3.0
230
7
20-29
45.5
43.7
515
26
30-39
29.4
35.8
332
21
40-49
13.4
11.5
169
8
50 and over
6.1
6.0
46
2
Total
100.0
100.0
242
12
no.
no.
Total
16,107
837
. .
. .

(a) Rate per 100,000 of the relevant population.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics Prisoners in Australia, 1994: Results of the 1994 National Prison Census.


Australian correctional statistics

The annual national Prison Census is compiled by the ABS from information collected by the correctional agencies on the basis of the prison population as at midnight 30 June. All adult prisons in Australia are covered, although the minimum age for prisoners varies between States and Territories (either 17 or 18 years). The most recent data available is from the 1994 Census.

Not all people in custody are in prison. They may also be held in police lock ups, secure psychiatric facilities or under special programs such as home detention. These detainees are not included in the Prison Census.

Prison Census data provides a picture of the persons in prison on a single day, which is not representative of the flow of prisoners. Most sentenced prisoners (58%) in the Prison Census were serving long sentences of two years or more for relatively serious offences, but the flow of offenders in and out of prisons is made up primarily of persons serving short sentences for relatively minor offences.

Australian Prison Trends data gives the daily average number of persons held in custody for each month. The figures do not include periodic detainees.


Crimes committed
Almost 90% of the 16,944 people in prison at 30 June 1994 had been sentenced; most of the rest were remanded in custody awaiting trial or sentence. Unsentenced prisoners also include a small number of prisoners awaiting deportation, a few forensic patients, and those detained at the Governor's pleasure (mostly because they are unfit for trial).

Although prisoners may have been convicted for multiple crimes, a view of the reasons for which they were imprisoned is most readily obtained by focussing on their most serious crime, usually the one for which they received the longest sentence.

Using this criterion, almost one half (46%) of all sentenced prisoners at the time of the 1994 Prison Census were convicted for violent offences against other people: sex offences (13%); robbery (13%); assault (11%) and homicide (9%).

Just over a quarter of all prisoners had been sentenced for a property offence (including break and enter, fraud and misappropriation, receiving and other theft). Drug offenders (including those who grow, possess, deal or traffic) made up 12% of all sentenced prisoners.

Not only were the numbers of men and women prisoners widely different, but the patterns of most serious offences for which men and women were serving prison sentences were also different. Sex offences were relatively common for men (with almost 2,000 offenders, representing 14% of male prisoners), but rare for women (7 offenders, representing 1% of female prisoners). Higher proportions of male prisoners were imprisoned for robbery and driving offences (13% and 4 % respectively) than female prisoners (7% and 1%).

The average age of prisoners at the time of their reception into prison differed, depending on the most serious offence for which they were sentenced. Prisoners convicted of assault, robbery, break and enter, and other theft were, on average, younger (with an average age of under 30 years). Sex offences, fraud and misappropriation, and drug offences were associated with older than average ages.

It is apparent that there has been some change between 1984 and 1994 in the reasons for which people have been imprisoned. Break and enter offences were relatively less common reasons for imprisonment in 1994 (13% of prisoners, compared to 17% in 1984), as were other theft, driving offences and homicide. Offences that have shown a proportionate increase were assault, sex offences and dealing or trafficking in drugs.

MOST SERIOUS OFFENCE OF SENTENCED PRISONERS


Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics Prisoners in Australia, 1994: Results of the 1994 National Prison Census;and Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Prisoners 1984.

MOST SERIOUS OFFENCE OF SENTENCED PRISONERS, 1994

Men
Women
Mean age at reception
Prisoners with known prior imprisonment
Mean aggregate sentence
Mean actual time expected to serve
Selected offences
no.
no.
years
%
months
months

Murder
859
37
29
55
207
143
Other homicide
421
33
30
48
89
58
Assault
1,558
69
28
69
35
25
Sex offences
1,971
7
36
43
79
51
Robbery
1,915
48
26
71
82
60
Break and enter
1,926
88
25
78
34
28
Fraud and misappropriation
593
116
36
46
31
23
Other theft
937
77
26
74
20
17
Deal/traffic drugs
1,269
95
35
38
70
52
Driving offences
565
9
31
63
8
7
All offences(a)
14,280
718
30
61
54
39

(a) Includes other offences.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics Prisoners in Australia, 1994: Results of the 1994 National Prison Census.


Length of sentence
The aggregate sentence refers to the longest period that the offender may be detained under sentence in the current episode. In 1994, the mean aggregate sentence imposed in Australia for prisoners was 4.5 years (4.6 years for men and 3.0 for women).

Sentence lengths vary considerably according to types of offences, and do not necessarily reflect the actual time a prisoner is likely to spend in prison. The actual time a person serves depends upon the sentence(s) handed down, the system of remissions and forms of parole available in the various States and Territories, and whether any time was spent in custody prior to conviction (for example, on remand or in police custody)3.

In 1994, the mean time that prisoners were expected to serve in custody was 3.2 years (3.3 years for men and 2.1 years for women). About half were expected to serve less than two years.

Prisoners convicted on a most serious offence of murder and given a determinate sentence had an mean expected time to serve in custody of nearly 12 years. In some States and Territories all prisoners convicted of murder are given a life (indeterminate) sentence for which the expected time to serve in custody cannot be calculated.

Other than prisoners convicted of murder, those with a most serious offence of robbery or other homicide were expected to spend the longest time in custody (about five years).

Recidivism
More than 60% of offenders in prison at the time of the 1994 Census had been imprisoned at some time previously. Male prisoners had a higher rate of prior imprisonment (61%) than female (56%). This high rate of recidivism is supported by a recent government review2, which found that around 38% of prisoners released in 1993 returned to corrective services within two years.

All offence types had large proportions of prisoners who had been imprisoned previously. This ranged from 78% of people in prison for break and enter offences to 38% for dealing or trafficking in drugs.

Indigenous prisoners
The 1987-91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody drew public attention to the issue of high rates of imprisonment among Indigenous people. Both the number of Indigenous prisoners and their imprisonment rate have increased over recent years.

For the month of June 1996, the number of Indigenous prisoners in Australia averaged 3,129 (19% of all prisoners in Australia). The imprisonment rate was 1,764 per 100,000 adults, 18 times greater than the non-Indigenous rate of imprisonment. Three years earlier, in June 1993 there were 2,294 Indigenous prisoners (16% of the total prison population), and the imprisonment rate was 1,366 per 100,000 adults, 15 times greater than the non-Indigenous rate of imprisonment.

As was the case for non-Indigenous prisoners, almost all Indigenous prisoners were male (94%), but Indigenous prisoners were typically younger, with a median age of 26 years. A larger proportion of Indigenous prisoners were aged under 30 years (69%) than non-Indigenous prisoners (51%). This partly reflects the relatively younger age distribution of all Indigenous people in the population.

The most common offences with which Indigenous prisoners had been charged or convicted were: assault (25%); break and enter (15%); sex offences (13%); and robbery (10%). Nearly four in five (79%) Indigenous prisoners had some prior history of imprisonment, considerably higher than prisoners overall (61%).

Patterns of imprisonment in Australian States and Territories
The rate of imprisonment and the average time prisoners were expected to serve differed between the States and Territories. This may be because responses to crime and the extent to which other corrective options are used, also differ between jurisdictions.

In June 1994, the largest prison population was in New South Wales with 7,711, or around 46% of all Australian prisoners. This included 1,291 prisoners serving sentences of periodic detention (two days per week).

The highest imprisonment rate was in the Northern Territory (383 per 100,000 adults), reflecting the high proportion of Indigenous people there. This was followed by Western Australia (169) and New South Wales (168).

The longest sentences were for prisoners in New South Wales (where prisoners have an average expected time to serve of 4.1 years) and shortest in the Northern Territory (1.8 years).

The number of unsentenced prisoners, mostly those remanded in custody awaiting trial or sentence, can be used as an indicator of stresses on the court system. In June 1994 it was found that the highest rate of unsentenced imprisonment was in South Australia (16% of prisoners), and the lowest in New South Wales (10%).

STATE AND TERRITORY PRISONERS, 1994

Units
NSW
Vic.
Qld
SA
WA
Tas.
NT
ACT

All prisonersno.
7,711
2,522
2,491
1,348
2,137
258
455
22
Unsentenced prisoners%
9.6
13.2
13.1
16.2
9.9
14.0
13.0
100.0
Imprisonment rate(a)
167.8
73.9
104.0
118.7
168.6
73.4
383.4
9.8
Average time expected to servemonths
49.4
34.4
33.2
34.7
25.6
22.6
21.7
. .

(a) Rate per 100,000 people aged 18 years or over.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics Prisoners in Australia, 1994: Results of the 1994 National Prison Census.


Endnotes
1 Frieberg, A. and Ross, S. ‘Change and stability in sentencing’, Law in Context, April 1996.

2 Steering Committee for the Review of Commonwealth/State Service Provision 1997, Report on Government Service Provision, Industry Commission, Melbourne.

3 Salloom, S. et al. Australian Prison Trends, Nos 1-200, May 1976-January 1993.



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