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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

tough on crime « Previous | |Next »
December 30, 2009

Over the last 30 years conservative state politicians in Australia have adopted the US approach to crime in the 1980s and 1990s. This was the "tough on crime" era when incarceration was touted as the simple solution to our crime problem--which was sold as either the 'three strikes law" approach-- or "do the crime do the time" in Victoria and South Australia.

The conservative's punitive approach stands for longer and harsher penalties and the elimination of rehabilitation. Under this system, offenders who could be more cheaply deterred or rehabilitated instead incurred the most expensive -- and, from the perspective of its effect on the community, damaging -- form of punishment possible. These conservative populists have taken their policies and rhetoric from the harsh American penal system.


Incarceration was the solution to social problems, urban decay and the public fear about unsafe and disordered neighbourhoods. It emerged as a critique of the social democrat approach to crime, which held that crime was the result of "root causes" such as poverty and poor education. Law and order conservatives labelled this as being "soft on crime" and made crime a political (law and order) issue to make the streets safer by "cracking down on crime". Consequently, the number of people incarcerated in the prison system has increased dramatically.

For state politicians in Australia there can be no such thing as not being tough enough on crime. They assume that breaking the law was an individual decision, not the product of social circumstances. Therefore, the only way to reduce crime was to make sure crime didn't pay. Incarceration was the means to ensure crime didn't pay. These political elites were not simply responding to popular opinion about crime and punishment as these conservatives played a large role in shaping the public's perceptions about crime.

In this they follow James Q. Wilson, who argued that government is ill equipped to remedy the root causes of crime, even if they could be identified with certainty; that people make rational choices to commit crime based on the relative risk and reward offered; that public policy decisions regarding crime should increase the risk and lower the relative reward of crime thereby helping to deter it.

The argument is that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior (graffiti, a mugging, vagrancy or drunkenness) goes unchecked.This is the broken window theory behind the conservative's punishment regime.

A problem with the "tough on crime" approach to curbing offending behavior by relying solely on incarceration is the recognition that something is deeply wrong with a modern industrialized nation imprisons a large percentage of its population; and, secondly, the problem of recidivism in that the prison system itself is criminogenic.

Thirdly, mass incarceration (including persons with mental illness, cognitive disability, dual diagnosis, Indigenous women and remandees, a significant number of who do not end up receiving a custodial
sentence at the end of their remand period) plays havoc with state budgets.Tough on crime can mean becoming bankrupt on crime. The neo-liberal solution to bankruptcy is to invest in mass incarceration as a business model--the privatization of the prison system.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:21 PM | | Comments (7)


With a recidivism rate of 55-60% the tough on crime approach is really going well. I thought that privatisation of the prison system was already upon us? Off the top of my head I think the savings have been around 15-18%.

Yes, the privatisation of the prison system is already upon us.That is built around the tough on crime approach, rather than programs and services that aim to assist in the reintegration of known offenders into mainstream society. The problem here is that serving time in prison greatlyincreases the chance of being re-incarcerated somewhere down the track compared to not ever having been incarcerated. Having served a term in prison is far from a deterrence to further offending.

The challenge of the prison system is reintegration - prisoners coming out of prison back to live in our neighbourhoods. Only a minority of Australian prisoners appear to successfully reintegrate after their release.

According to this linked article in the above post conservatives offered two theories of the newly politicized crime problem:

1) An individualistic theory suggesting that both poverty and crime are freely chosen by dangerous and undeserving individuals who refuse to work for a living and are not penalized for doing so;and
2) A cultural theory asserting that the “culture of welfare” is the
primary cause of a variety of social ills, including poverty, crime, delinquency, and drug addiction
Although distinct in some ways, these individualistic and cultural theories both identify “permissiveness” as the underlying cause of crime and imply the need to strengthen the state’s control apparatus.

The authors say that In the 1980s and 1990s, the ascendance of this frame has also helped to legitimate the assault on the welfare state and the dramatic expansion of the penal system.

The two conservative theories are intertwined. According to the culture-of-poverty thesis, poor people are poor because of their cultural values--eg., non-work-oriented lifestyles.

Furthermore the mere existence of welfare has encouraged poor people to think that they are entitled to that which they have not earned. Conservatives argued that the “culture
of welfare” undermines the (already weak) self-discipline of the poor and promotes welfare dependency and crime.

Where appropriate, community supervision orders rather than custodial sentences would reduce some barriers to reintegration.

In conservative eyes its not the crime that is important its whoever commits the crime that is the perceived problem.

Or to put it another way its OK to commit crimes if you are middle/upper class.

Violence against persons committed by lower class perpetrators is punished according to the ideology outlined in the post.
Violence against persons committed by middle/upper class persons is easier to ignore and allow to continue virtually unabated.

Does that look a bit wacky, way out, an outlandish claim?

Check out the statistics for the occurrence of domestic violence in Australia.
Look at the rate of occurrence, compare to the rate of reporting, the rate of investigation, the rate of arrest, the rate of conviction.
Its a crime that is virtually ignored.
Yet is one of the most severe and endemic crimes committed in Australia.

Ditto for child sexual abuse, itself a closely related issue and, like the former, one that crosses class and social borders.
But not gender [well very rarely so].

But action against these crimes is rare [TV campaigns are not direct action].
Unless such occur in a lower class context eg the brouhaha over the NT intervention against the indigenous people where the full strength of media and government indignation has been shouted from the roof tops whilst similar crimes occurring in wealthy white suburbs receive cursory attention at best.

I repeat, check out the rates for investigation etc.

Miranda Devine in the SMH---Feelgood sops from politicians are no help in healing a mother's heartbreak uses the conservative approach to crime re the attacks on Indian students in

She says that whether or not the attacks on Garg and fellow Indians were racially motivated, the fact is they shouldn't be happening. Law and order is a fundamental right of civilised societies.T hen adds:

But after a decade of policy dictated by leftist academic criminologists, who cling to the myth that crime is caused by poverty and social injustice, the most vulnerable people - such as Indian students working late at fast-food outlets - are paying the price, while ministers trumpet the lie that Victoria is the safest place in Australia.

Victoria has fewer police per capita than any other state and spends less on them. Its imprisonment rate - 104 per 100,000 adults - is about half that of NSW. Its suspiciously low crime rate turned out to be based on dodgy crime statistics.

Devine's solution to the crime is Giulian's zero tolerance policy. the reasoning is that if you cleaned up the small crimes, such as vandalism and public drunkenness, you eliminated the public disorder and fear that made residents leave the streets to criminals.