The ferocity of the public debate over the severity of Pauline Hanson's prison sentence is a welcome sign.
It may be a signal that, together with the draconian punishment handed out to disgraced chief magistrate Di Fingleton, Queenslanders at last may be realising
that imprisonment might be an inappropriate penalty for many criminal offences.
Increasingly, we seem to be using prison as a penalty of "first" rather than "last" resort.
Driven by politicians of all political persuasions determined to beat up law-and-order issues, including Pauline Hanson herself, imprisonment rates have dramatically
increased in Queensland.
So have the sentences handed out. Successive Queensland governments have increased penalties for many crimes, and it has become harder and harder for prisoners to
obtain early release through parole.
As a result, our jails are overflowing, and millions of dollars are being spent on more and more cells.
There is no doubting the strong public support for increasing incarceration of criminals. Public opinion surveys show that rather than rehabilitation, the community subscribes to the view that retribution and deterrence should be the major goals of sentencing policy.
Indeed, one commentator has gone so far as to suggest that because of our penal background, punishment is a cherished part of the Australian way of life. Certainly
in Queensland we seem almost proud of the fact that we make jails tougher and spend less than almost any other state on rehabilitating offenders.
During 2000-01 the Australian Productivity Commission
reported that Queensland spent the lowest amount on each prisoner a day in each category of managed prisons and community corrections. We spent $116 in secure
custody, $72 in open custody and $3 in community corrections. These amounts compare with the national average costs for each prisoner a day of $149 for secure, $117
for open and $6.50 for community corrections.
These figures have increased in the 2001-02 productivity report, but Queensland is still below the national average, as we also are in the percentage of prisoners receiving education, training and employment opportunities.
So, in Queensland, the public is getting what it wants: relatively harsh prison conditions, more and more time spent in custody before parole, and few real attempts
to rehabilitate prisoners or assist them when they are finally released.
I am not suggesting we should abandon imprisonment. It is clearly needed for serious violent offenders and arguably for major fraudsters and other white-collar
offenders who cause misery and destitution to scores of victims.
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