Saturday, July 13, 2024

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HomeVolume 29Fighting crime: Is the law an ass?

Fighting crime: Is the law an ass?


I have thought seriously about whether it is wise to be raising issues about the administration of law during a crime crisis in the Northern Territory that has attracted negative international attention, businesses closing, people leaving, tourism dropping, in an election campaign fought on reducing crime.    

Australia’s imprisonment rate of Indigenous peoples is a domestic embarrassment and causes international condemnation and shame. Other countries around the world imprison people from the lower economic ranks disproportionately, but our problem is acute.

And it is shockingly expensive and ineffective.    

So, is the law an ass?

I am not the first to harbour doubts. A quick Google will reveal the phrase has its origins in a play from the 1600s, and was popularised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist; it references the mythical obstinacy and stupidity attributed to donkeys, and calls out the legal system for rigidly and stubbornly applying the law in a one-size-fits-all way.

Well, let me Quote Mr Google again: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” According to a large number of inspirational mugs and posters, this famous quote comes from none other than Albert Einstein.

So not to raise the elephant in the room would amount to remaining silent. Acquiescing. Accepting. We are certainly not delivering best practice and I have a duty to join the chorus.

Maintaining law and order is a complex problem, yet on the street corners of every city around the world you will find people with all the answers. And it is the same here in the Northern Territory.

It is a national problem. Indigenous people in NSW are imprisoned at 10 times the rate of others, and the statistics are even worse in other States including SA, WA, and the NT.

An abundance of solutions will be put before us in the next few months, because we have elections looming in August for the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. Of course, “law and order,” crime, will feature prominently in the election campaign. It happens every time. It is what we do.

We know there is an election campaign underway, because of the appearance of aspiring politicians replete with fold up chairs and beach umbrellas positioned along busy roads waving frantically at passing motorists. What do they stand for? It is like the annual migration of birds from the Northern Hemisphere – fortunately, we have fixed term elections, and this phenomenon occurs only at four-yearly intervals.

The root causes? We will never agree on the answer to this question. Some want to blame the British invasion, or Captain Cook, or colonialism. As a nation we shy away from the uncomfortable truths in the reports of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody on the underlying causes.

Others want to blame the Australian Government. A former Northern Territory Attorney General once said: “The Commonwealth creates the problem, and it is left to the Northern Territory to mop up.”

I am certain he was referring to our generous system of welfare benefits and the social consequences. More than $200 billion annually. The mix of Youth Allowance, Job Search Allowance, Supporting Mothers Benefit most with no mutual obligation requirements attached. Free money in other words.

An individual’s entitlement to benefits usually exceeds the starting wage for someone entering the workforce. A disincentive to work! Seriously.

And a household’s entitlement to the full range of benefits can be astonishing. Then in some cases add royalties from mining operations on their land. About 40 years ago a Remote Area Exemption (no work test) on eligibility for unemployment benefits was introduced. In other words, one could decline a job.

The combined effects of these measures led to a belief that there is “no need to work because the government will keep me for life,” children who grew up having never seen either parent working abandoned school because they did not need an education as government would give them free money too.

Even so, at every budget time, there is a clamour to increase the unemployment benefit. Increase the disparity between wages and welfare? Further disincentivise people from moving from welfare dependency into work? (I am not entirely heartless – I can guess how hard it is to survive on welfare benefits in the cities.)

The fundamentally flawed structure of our welfare benefits and wage rates creates intergenerational welfare dependency.

Most other government programs evaluate whether the program is meeting targets. That cannot be the case here. Processing huge payments year in year out that are causing social mayhem, and then looking the other way, is not the mark of a compassionate society. It resonates of neglect.

We have unintentionally created idleness. A questioning of self-worth. An erosion of self-responsibility. And all the associated negative social fallout.

The gaols are full.

Do we need some more analysis of the reasons? (I suspect that the work has been done, and the figures are on a shelf somewhere gathering dust.) I would like to see:

  • A comparison with interstate experience on the scale of seriousness of the crimes committed by our inmates. (There is a suggestion that we gaol for trivial reasons.)
  • how many are inside because of fine default?
  • what was the financial capacity of that household to pay the fine?
  • How many are on remand, and for how long?
  • How does the length of remand compare with other states?
  • Why is there a delay in the Courts processing these cases?
  • Are the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Police manipulating delays?
  • Or are these two crucial agencies overworked and under-resourced?
  • What is the connection between idleness and incarceration?
  • The connection between idleness, and health status, substance abuse, domestic violence, child neglect, school absenteeism

I imagine that this work would now be categorised under the new, enlightened, title of Justice Reinvestment. You spend a $ now to save even more in the future.

I am quite sure that if we had reliable data on this interconnectedness, we would stop providing free money every fortnight, year in year out and congratulating ourselves on our generosity.

Two former Police Commissioners said: “You can’t arrest your way out of this problem.” And obviously nor will spending huge sums on more prisons help.

NEXT: The adequacy of judicial sentencing.


  1. Agree Bob and very much admire your work in this area.
    But it appears much of the NT is “on the bludge”!
    One only has to watch the NT government in action.
    Bit hard to focus on Aboriginal people for this behaviour.


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