ACT Government Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

“While it is debatable why the ACT government chose to rely on ABS data for internal purposes, but point to a much more restricted data set for public purposes, I think we all know the answer “, declares JULIE PLIERS.

IN “Portfolio Brief: Minister for Police and Emergency Services, 2020” on page 13, the new Minister of Corrections was told by his leadership that: “Re-incarceration (recidivism) rates are over 90% for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander inmates at AMC, compared to 75% for non-Indigenous inmates.

Julie Tongs, CEO of Winnunga.

The wallet record, mentioned above, is in the public domain and readily available.

Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services has from time to time relied, in good faith, on the data mentioned above and published by the ACT government.

It is acknowledged that the memoir is now over a year old, however, the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report on recidivism rates across the country, “Prisoners in Australia, 2021”, published on December 9, reveals that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recidivism rates in ACT are 94% and the highest in Australia.

So it was surprising to hear Acting Commissioner of Corrections Ray Johnson recently state on ABC radio that the Aboriginal recidivism rate in ACT is 40%.

Due to the gaping difference between the rate published by the ACT Government at the end of 2020 (over 90%), recently confirmed by the ABS, and the rate of 40% claimed by Mr Johnson, I have written to ACT Corrective Services ask for clarification on the matter.

In response, Management indicated that:

“The latest data on recidivism is available in the “Government Services Report 2022”.

“The ACT had 38.5% of inmates (released in 2018-19) returning to prison (within two years of release) compared to 45.2% nationally. The return rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees was 44%, compared to 56.8% nationally.

So. An answer reminiscent of the old, outdated expression “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics”. If a particular set of data is worrisome, adopt an alternative data set that tells a different story. In this case, for example, the ACT government relies on data that only relates to inmates who have been re-incarcerated within two years of their release and completely ignores the rest.

The information produced below, based on the latest ABS data on recidivism rates for all inmates and not just those who have been re-incarcerated within two years of release, tells a very different story.

Interestingly, the “Portfolio Brief” prepared for the Minister, to which I refer above, which indicates that the re-incarceration rate is over 90%, was clearly based on ABS data. While one might wonder why the ACT government chose to rely on ABS data for internal purposes, but point to a much more restricted data set for public purposes, I think we all know the answer.

The ABS report also reveals, much to our shame, that the crude and age-standardized incarceration rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT are also the highest in the country. The rate ratios for 2021 are 21 (crude rate) and 19.5 (age-standardized rate). Simply put, an Indigenous person in the ACT was, in 2021, 21 times more likely to be sent to prison than a non-Indigenous person.

Worryingly, the increase in the rate of imprisonment of indigenous people in the ACT over the last decade (while Greens leader Shane Rattenbury was the minister responsible) was also the highest in Australia.

The ABS reports that in 2011 an Aboriginal in the ACT was 11.6 times more likely to be imprisoned than a non-Aboriginal when the national average was 14.4 times.

Under Minister Rattenbury, the likelihood of an Indigenous person being incarcerated compared to a non-Indigenous person increased 9.4 times, while nationally the likelihood of incarceration increased 1.4 times.

With regard to recidivism, the ABS has, as mentioned above, published the proportion of all prisoners in each year who had been previously imprisoned and not just those who were re-incarcerated within two years of their release.

The ABS report reveals that the ACT, with an indigenous recidivism rate of 94%, had in December, again to our great shame, the highest recidivism rate in Australia. The ACT recidivism rate for non-Indigenous prisoners is 74%, which is also the highest in Australia.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. The ABS has also tracked the crude imprisonment rate over the past 10 years and it is not surprising to find that the crude imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT grew by 70%, the second highest rate of increase in Australia, and more than double the Australian average of 31 percent. Remarkably, the incarceration rate of non-Indigenous people in the ACT has decreased, over the same period, by 6%. What does this tell us?

Corrections also helpfully reported that as of April 26, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who make up 1.9% of the ACT’s population, constituted 27% of the ACT’s prison population.

We really need a royal commission on these issues.

Julie Tongs is the CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services.

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