The Age

More women prisoners

By PADRAIC MURPHY
The Age (Melbourne)
2000-11-04 23:16:07

The growing gap between rich and poor has been blamed for a sharp increase in the number of women in Australia's prisons. Figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology show that since 1991, the number of women in prison increased 185 per cent, from 607 to 1124.

Institute director Adam Graycar described this as alarming because the emphasis in Australia should be on keeping people out of prison through alternative programs like community service.

The increase over the past decade is attributed to women suffering greater economic deprivation than men. The increasing affluence among certain sections of society also means there are more valuables to be stolen by those who need money - and women are increasingly showing up as the thieves.

The number of Aboriginal women prisoners jumped 262 per cent over the same period - significantly more than the rate for the general female population. "They are twice as likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal women," Dr Graycar said.

Christine Alder, associate professor of criminology at Melbourne University, says women generally do not commit crimes against people but have an economic focus due to the financial pressures they face.

"Women generally are in prison for drug and property offences, and that is associated with people in poverty," Dr Alder said. "There is an increasing gap between the rich and the poor and I would suggest that larger numbers of women are being caught up (among) the poor."

Experts are also alarmed by a failure to properly rehabilitate women by means other than prison. "We have to develop alternatives that are women friendly ... that recognise the pressures women are under, such as drug problems and children," Dr Alder said.

Dr Graycar's research also found that women are more likely to be in prison for drug and property offences than men, but far less likely to be there for violent offences. For women, 12 per cent were in prison for drug offences compared to 9 per cent for men, and 34 per cent were in prison for property offences compared to 23 per cent for men.

"Women who are in prisons have less opportunity to participate in economic booms," Dr Graycar said. "In a dynamic employment environment, women are simply more likely to miss out."

Copyright The Age Company Ltd 2000.