Rising prison population: a symptom of inequality

Our prison population is reaching record levels, a reality that is fed by our seemingly entrenched levels of inequality. Societies with higher inequality do worse on a whole raft of social indicators, including having a greater propensity for violence and higher imprisonment rates.[1]

In New Zealand, we have record rates of convictions leading to prison, a record prison muster, and record incarceration rates. The prison population in 2017 now exceeds 10,000 and we are planning to expand this by a further 18%.[2] These figures are surpassing the government’s own predictions. Just two years ago they predicted 8,000 prisoners in 2017; we have now surpassed that by over 2000 prisoners. This growth was not foreseen, and the cost to the taxpayer now exceeds $850 million.[3]

Over recent decades, Aotearoa New Zealand has also experienced the highest rate of growth in income inequality in the OECD.[4]  Our wealth inequality is also considerable (measured by household assets minus debts). The top 10 percent of households hold half the wealth, while the bottom 40% hold just 3% of the wealth.[5]

So why are our prison populations increasing? And how does this relate to inequality?

The number of people locked up in prison is influenced by four things: 1.) crime rates, 2.) conviction rates, 3.) the tendency toward prison sentences rather than fines or community service, and 4.) the lengths of prison sentences.[6] More unequal nations appear to impart more punitive policies. The United States is a world leader in wealth inequality amongst OECD nations. It also has one of the most punitive criminal justice systems in the world, characterised by a greater proportion of prison (custodial) sentences and a tendency toward longer sentences, compared to other OECD nations.[7] 1 in 110 adults are now in prison in the United States.[8] In Aotearoa New Zealand, we appear to be following a similar punitive trajectory, with an increased proportion of convictions now resulting in a prison sentence and a reduced number of community-based sentences. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of offenders commencing non-custodial community-based sentences declined by 36% while prison sentences increased[9]

Violence, and a fear of violence, are more common in more unequal societies. More than half of all people going to prison in New Zealand are doing so for violent offences.[10]  Violence is most often, particularly in males, a response to disrespect, humiliation and loss of face. Feelings of shame and humiliation are more heightened in more unequal societies due to greater status competition and a resulting lack of connection, personal worth and value. Inequality present a relative toxic mix of issues with trust and social cohesion also being less common in more unequal societies. With greater inequality, we not only have a propensity towards violence, but also fractured relationships. In other words, a concerning result of inequality is a rising prison population.

The mechanism by which increased imprisonment rates connect to inequality are discussed avidly by people from many disciplines.[11] One sociological theory suggests that relative deprivation increases feelings of dispossession and unfairness, which leads poorer individuals to reduce perceived economic injustice through crime. Economic theories traditionally characterise criminal activity as an occupational choice arising from low risks of being caught. The threat of imprisonment is suggested to increase the perceived cost of the crime and therefore may act as a deterrent. Despite the debates, the one thing that the disciplines do seem to agree on is that inequality and imprisonment are linked.

A 2013 review of literature related to crime and inequality concluded that a decrease in income inequality is associated with sizeable reduction in crime.[12]

“It is evident that a focus on reducing income inequality can be advantageous to reducing property crime, robbery, homicide and murder, and hence a policy implication of this review maybe that income inequality should be considered when designing crime reduction strategies (p. 8).

We can potentially prevent crime by building on our growing fear and distrust. We can lock more people away, install CTV cameras, build higher fences and gate our communities. However, lessening feelings of dispossession, status competition and unfairness by reducing inequality is also likely to be effective, and is arguably far more sustainable in the long term. The choice is ours. Reducing inequality certainly seems like it would be a whole lot cheaper that the $850 million or more that we are currently spending on prison beds.

[1] Wilkinson, R.G & and Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane.

[2] Johnson, A. (2017). Off The Track. State of the Nation Report. Auckland: Salvation Army Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit. Available at http://www.salvationarmy.org.nz/research-media/social-policy-and-parliamentary-unit/reports/off-the-track-SON2017

[3] ibid

[4] Rashbrooke, M. Ed. (2013). Inequality a New Zealand Crisis. Wellington: BWB.

[5]http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/people_and_communities/Households/HouseholdNetWorthStatistics_HOTPYeJun15.aspx

[6] Wilkinson, R.G & and Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane.

[7] Wilkinson, R.G & and Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane.

[8] US Bureau of Justice Statistics

[9] Johnson, A. (2017). Off The Track. State of the Nation Report. Auckland: Salvation Army Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit. Available at http://www.salvationarmy.org.nz/research-media/social-policy-and-parliamentary-unit/reports/off-the-track-SON2017

[10] ibid

[11] Rufrancos HG, Power M, Pickett KE, Wilkinson R (2013) Income Inequality and Crime: A Review and Explanation of the Time–series Evidence. Social Crimonol 1: 103. doi: 10.4172/scoa.1000103

[12] ibid

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