The Victorian government’s announcement that it is ceasing publication of its yearly Statistical Profile of Prisoners at a time of unprecedented growth in prisoners in Victoria is deeply disturbing and entirely unjustifiable.
The Statistical Profile which has been freely available for decades and easily accessible on the Department of Justice website, is a vital source of unbiased information for those of us interested in countering the misinformation and manufactured rage around the discussion of crime and prisons.
This publication which is specific to Victoria has some 70 pages of information which tells us who goes to prison, their age, offences, gender, aboriginality, ethnicity, length of sentence, whether they have been inside before and has a brief report on each of Victorian prisons. It also provides an analysis of historical trends and key changes in imprisonment.
The Prison Statistical Profile is a wealth of information for the community and is vital for policy makers, NGOs, researchers, journalists and students because if gives us guideposts as to where resources need to be spent outside prison to address the social drivers for crime. Through it we have been able to track for example the reduction in numbers of people going to prison for armed robberies, the unchanging rate of homicide, the rise in the numbers of young offenders going to adult prisons, the rise in family violence sentences and the explosion in women prisoner numbers. If the Statistical Profile was published this year it would show us that the current crackdown on and refusals of parole are responsible for 60% of the increase in prisoner numbers in the last 12 months.
The Minister for Corrections Edward O’Donoghue’s lame justification for ceasing publication - that this is an ‘efficiency measure’ is entirely disingenuous. The minister says that because the Victorian government provides this statistical information to the federal government, it will be available from them. This is an absurd arrangement comment given that prisons are a matter of state responsibility. Moreover the COAG (Council of Australian Government Reports) which the minister is referring to, comprise many thousands of pages, unearthing information from them is difficult and extremely time consuming. Moreover it does not include any Victoria specific analysis or commentary. In respect of government ‘efficiency’ it is hard to see how pressing a button twice, once to send it to COAG and then again to put it on the Victorian Department of Justice website is anything to do with cost saving.
Victorian prisoner numbers have increased 40% in the last 10 years. Victoria’s crime rate continues to be one of the lowest in Australia, as it has been since such statistics have been collated. So the community is footing the bill for an exponential rise in prison spending, purely as a consequence of government policy, not in response to any rising crime.
In this context to block up, yet another window into our prisons and effectively remove easily accessible and Victoria specific information from the public arena, is a diminution of accountability in an area of government responsibility, which because of the very nature of imprisonment, requires the highest level of transparency and disclosure of information. Information is power and the state government wants it all.
Amanda George, Western Suburbs Legal Service, Adjunct Research Fellow Monash University.
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