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More poor in jail helps NT manage economy

By Patrick Nelson

Dr Don Zoellner … “the justice budget has increased to more than $600 million” Dr Don Zoellner … “the justice budget has increased to more than $600 million”

A Charles Darwin University academic has revealed how the Territory’s rising prison population has served as a long-term mechanism for managing the economy.

The observation by CDU’s Northern Institute Research Associate Dr Don Zoellner is based in part on an analysis of Territory budgets since self-government in 1978.

Dr Zoellner said he compared the dollars allocated to justice with those given to vocational education and training, in a study designed to clarify the competing priorities of the policy-making process.

“The justice budget was typically double that of the VET budget until the mid-1990s when it began to increase dramatically,” Dr Zoellner said.

“The VET budget has remained stagnant at about $100 million per year since then, but the justice budget has increased to more than $600 million."

Dr Zoellner said the evidence suggested that when it came to dealing with disadvantaged people, the Territory had shown a preference for imprisoning citizens at one of the highest rates in the world, rather than increasing their access to vocational education and training linked to employment.

“A practice we might call ‘prisonfare’ has increasingly replaced welfare as a policy option for governments to manage those who are economically disadvantaged,” he said.

“This case study shows that ‘prisonfare’ has achieved a dominant policy position when compared to training policy in the Northern Territory.”

He said it was a non-partisan activity, not associated with a particular government or political party.

“My analysis shows it hasn’t made a difference who was in power. The pattern has been embraced by successive Territory governments even with the repeal of mandatory sentencing.”

Dr Zoellner explained that his observations fitted a model proposed by sociologist Loic Wacquant, a French-American theorist who contends that advanced liberal democracies dealt with people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in one of three ways: socialising, medicalising or penalising.

He presented the observations at the John Strehlow Conference in Alice Springs on 24 September.