Access to data on incarceration rates

3.76     In addition to undertaking data analyses, Curtin University was requested to provide the ALRC with proposals relating to improvements in data collection and the monitoring of incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In consultation with a number of experts in the field, Curtin University provided the following proposals:

3.77     More complete data on imprisonment levels: If Australia is to reduce the number of Indigenous people who come into contact with the prison system it needs complete, timely and accessible information about incarceration levels of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. National prison statistics are produced annually by the ABS but these are incomplete—they do not count or report on the total ‘flow’ of prisoners who come into and leave prison over a defined period. 

3.78     Basic statistics on both the number of people coming into and exiting prisons (‘flow’ data) as well as the ‘stock’ of prisons (i.e. the number of people in custody on any one day) are essential for ongoing monitoring, and for the design and rigorous evaluation of new policies. 

3.79     The following means of obtaining greater statistical information were put forward:

  • Expansion of the current national prison publications to include the collection and dissemination of prison reception statistics. This would enable more effective monitoring of the prison population and improve the visibility of offenders who serve short sentences or who are incarcerated for less serious offences.

  • More regular production of stock and flow statistics – on a monthly, or at least quarterly basis, so that appropriate time series and panel analyses can be conducted. The federal nature of Australian Government opens the possibility of examining the effect of policy change in one jurisdiction using other jurisdictions as a control but this requires more frequent measurement of key variables than is currently the case.

  • Inclusion of additional or improved statistics on prisoners such as more detailed information on remandees (particularly time spent on remand and what proportion of remandees go on to serve terms of imprisonment), fine defaulters and/or offenders in prison for traffic/driving licence offences related to the operation of fines enforcement systems in some jurisdictions i.e. where drivers’ licences may be suspended as a result of non-payment of fines.

3.80     Additional details such as place held (e.g. police lock-ups or corrections facilities) and release status are also relevant given limited information on parole and community based orders. Reception data on inmate health status e.g. known substance abuse, mental illness, and communicable or other disease (e.g. TB, diabetes, etc.) would also assist in understanding underlying and related issues. This information could be captured using a DUMA style methodology.[37]

3.81     Improving accessibility to data: Recognising that it is difficult to include all possible cross-tabulations in publications, it was suggested that:

  • the ABS work with other national and jurisdiction-based crime statistics agencies to explore methods of making unit record data collected on prisoners more accessible to the research community – such as through data cubes and CURFs. This would provide greater flexibility in the use of the data and permit a more fine-grained analysis of issues as/when required.

3.82     Information about upstream factors: Many factors, not just penal policy/practice, are known to have a bearing on incarceration levels. It is important for the community to have an understanding of how ‘upstream factors’ such as court/sentencing practices and policing policies/practice (e.g. arrest rates and bail decisions) influence imprisonment levels. For this reason, it was suggested that:

  • national criminal court statistics be improved such that breakdowns of finalisations, sentencing decisions and penalties (quantum) by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status are available for all jurisdictions. Information on traffic offences should also be included in the national court collections.

  • the ABS NATSIS survey (Cat No 4714.0) be expanded to include more detail on self-reported offending and on the reason for arrest/imprisonment. At the moment it is possible to explore the correlates of victimisation but very difficult to explore the correlates of arrest/offending because there is no way of distinguishing between arrests for different kinds of crime.

3.83     It is critical that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status of defendants is accurately recorded and reported. This is especially important in WA which has the unenviable record of having both the highest rate of Indigenous imprisonment in Australia and one of the widest gaps between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous incarceration levels. It is disappointing that WA data, broken down by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status, is not currently included in the ABS Criminal Courts Australia series.

3.84     Recidivism rates: National estimates of the recidivism of offenders are not routinely produced or published. Current proxy measures such as prior record of imprisonment are inadequate. It was suggested that:

  • a nationally consistent approach to the estimation and analysis of recidivism rates, by way of detailed rigorous estimation of probabilities of returns to prison by offenders, with special attention paid to correlates of recidivism in prison populations. Consideration of a minimum length of follow-up time for estimates of re-imprisonment is also needed, this being critical for the development of risk tools.

3.85     The creation and use of properly validated risk assessment tools is also supported, as such tools, based on Australian prisons data, would assist in reducing the number of Indigenous people in custody. Prediction based on actuarial risk assessment tools have been shown to be more accurate than professional knowledge and experience, yet the level of investment in such instruments has been poor across Australia. 

3.86     Finally, it was suggested that the best vehicle for conducting work on recidivism and risk assessment is through a collaboration between University-based researchers and national or state-based research agencies such as the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) and/or BOCSAR in NSW. This provides a useful blend of policy-relevant requirements, expertise in recidivism and the means to access critical data on incarceration and offending levels.