A Vicious Cycle

prison cell

By Ned Hirst

prison cell

The Australian people are not as philosophically opposed to capital punishment as politicians’ rhetoric surrounding the impending executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran might have you believe. A 2009 Roy Morgan poll found only 29% of Australians supported the death penalty, but in 2005 another poll, also conducted by Roy Morgan, found that 77% of us favoured the death penalty for the Bali bombers. This year’s now notorious triple j poll (Roy Morgan again) found that 52% of Australians thought the death penalty should be carried out on Australians convicted of drug offences overseas. Australians may be humanists, but only in the abstract.

It’s little wonder that this should be the case, given that there is not even a consensus about what the criminal justice system is supposed to achieve. If the purpose is to punish, then the death penalty is its logical conclusion. Those of us most staunchly opposed to the death penalty cite the argument that criminal justice should be rehabilitative, but our prison system systemically fails to rehabilitate offenders. The Australian Institute of Criminology reports the rate of recidivism nationwide is 60%. It’s a wonder it isn’t higher. Is there any sense to taking disturbed, violent and often disadvantaged people, locking them together in a brutalising environment rife with physical and sexual violence and then releasing them at the end of their sentence expecting them to be model citizens? I once observed a judge telling a young offender “some people come out scarred not because they come out as convicted criminals but because of what happened on the inside.” We know this, so why do we send them there?

Of course any state politician knows that being soft on crime is an election-loser. It’s a vicious cycle and it will take either bipartisanship or superhuman political courage to crack it. Nevertheless it seems obvious we would achieve better rehabilitative outcomes if we set out to rehabilitate. The hopeless, tragic irony is that Chan and Sukumaran have, in spite of the odds, rehabilitated. Opposing the death penalty, the prisoner governor said Chan “organises courses in prison, leads the English-language church service and is a mentor to many.” Sukumaran teaches English and computer courses to prisoners. We could feel confident in their return to society, but senselessly it seems now they will never be given that opportunity. If anything is learnt from this, it should be not only to oppose capital punishment everywhere, but to take the hard steps to reform our own justice system.