Honesty, Crime and Punishment

We sort of know that Australia is the best place to live in this strange world of 2017, where terrorism, neo-dictators, climate change, incompetent heads of state and other scary things abound. We have our share of gormless, gutless and potentially corrupt politicians; but not to the extent of most other nations. We rightfully expect honesty and the detection and punishment of crimes across the nation. Do we achieve these expectations?


While Australians want honesty, the perception is that we don’t get much of it among the professionals and some salespeople. Roy Morgan Research has been tracking the perception of trustworthiness, honesty and ethics across 30 or so occupations for many years. At one stage, I think drug-dealers were added to get politicians or car salespersons off the bottom of the ladder!

The 2017 results are shown below. Health professionals and teachers continue to top the list in trustworthiness. Encouragingly, our police and judges pass muster, with over half the voters believing in them. But lawyers don’t, public servants don’t, and only a third of the voters think ministers of religion are honest.

Not even one voter in six thinks our politicians are honest, and almost nobody trusts car salespersons, advertising people or real estate agents; and haven’t along the history of these polls. More’s the pity, given the possible, if not probable, sincerity of most of these professionals.


There is an old adage that says crime doesn’t pay. We all like to think that is true; that people get caught and punished for things ranging from theft and corporate malfeasance to serious assault, rape and murder. That is, in fact, a fallacy. Crime has succeeded throughout history. Even at the end of the 20th century, only one in a hundred crimes in Australia – that on paper were liable to a jail sentence – were detected, brought to court and punished with a jail sentence. So, authorities failed to incarcerate the offenders in 99 out of 100 crimes committed, easing to 98 out of 100 two decades later as we head towards 2020.

There are just over 40,000 individuals in prisons at present, or 2.1 per 1,000 adult Australians. But are prisons the answer anyway? If not, and if so few criminals get caught and punished, how do we address the challenge of reducing the crime rate?

To assume that the wrongdoers are well-off and happy would be just as untrue as saying crime doesn’t pay. A small minority might be making a living, or a ‘killing’, and be happy; but most don’t make a lot of money, even if that was the intent of the crime. Most are unhappy souls including drug addicts, depressed or desperate individuals, and other people we wouldn’t swap places with. And some, if not many, perpetrators are remorseful of crimes-of-passion, be they serious assault (including domestic violence), rape while intoxicated, or murder.

One of the long-held myths in Australia is that we have a much lower crime rate than other countries, and that our nation is one of the safest in which to live in terms of victimisation. But the situation is not as clear-cut as that.

It is true that Australia has a low rate of homicide, and indeed has remained almost constant at just under twenty murders per million citizens for over two centuries. There are countries with lower rates, such as major European nations and Japan, but there are many nations with much higher rates. The USA has close to 50 murders per million people, Russia has over 100 per million and South Africa has over 300 per million. Contrary to popular opinion, we are not experiencing a runaway increase in murders: indeed, murders are currently declining in numbers and as a ratio, as seen below.

However, when it comes to serious assault, Australia is high on the list of nations from data of the mid-2010s. Then, nearly three individuals per thousand citizens were assaulted, placing Australia well up the danger ladder.

Yet the incidence of robbery and motor vehicle theft has dropped like a stone in this century. Robbery has dropped from 1,350 per million people in 2000 to just 300 per million in 2017 (a fall of nearly 80%), and motor vehicle theft has dropped from 7,200 per million people to 2,100 per million (a 70% fall).

But the scary scene is with drugs, and the crime that goes with them. The chart below is truly sobering, showing Australia’s use of ecstasy (one of the methamphetamines) is one of the highest in the world.

The case for decriminalising and controlling the drug market just keeps getting more urgent, given that the detection and confiscation of illicit drugs is probably minimal.

Crime in business

What about corporate crime? Transparency International’s Corruptions Perception Index 2016 had Australia at 13th most honest; ahead of the United States and Japan, but behind New Zealand, Singapore, Canada and others. Among 230 nations, this is good but can be improved.

Our regulators are active. Over the past decade, 29 of our Top 50 corporations have been in court appearances. The ACCC has taken 669 actions over the past decade. ASIC has examined around 5,000 criminal matters. The ATO retrieves some $10 billion per year in corporate tax evasion. The Fair Work Commission has secured smaller amounts, but where they have, it has amounted to a claimed $900+ per employee.

Given the nation has 2.1 million businesses, of which over 830,000 employ workers other than the owners, we seem to have comparatively low rates of corporate crime. That said, the regulators’ vigilance is improving, aided by a public that can punish wayward firms for dishonesty more speedily these days with the aid of modern communications, including social media.


There were around 750,000 crimes detected each year in the late 2010s that were liable for, if not warranting, a conviction and jail sentence. However, the detected number at the end of the 20th century was over a million, so the good news is that crime rates are abating, with prospects of lower rates through much of the 21st century. However, it is important to put some caveats on crime and crime statistics, as all authorities do. Firstly, society and legislators have added (and sometimes removed) definitions of crime and other non-criminal offences over the past century or so. Secondly, the reporting of crime has risen significantly: many people are no longer prepared to take it on the chin, or are less inclined to feel shame (as has often been the case with rape and paedophilia). And finally, we have become more litigious and are more insured, as individuals and with our property, and can seek monetary compensation for victimisation.

And there is room for optimism. Firstly, unemployment is much lower than the disgraceful 30-year period from 1977 to 2007, when rigidity by unions, employers and governments prevented the restoration of full employment. Secondly, the drug problem could, and probably will, become more contained, although it will never be removed. Thirdly, preventative measures for crimes against the person and property are growing rapidly. This involves self-precaution, security-systems, surveillance, deterrent devices and other measures. Deterrents for mobile phone theft are now in place, and the combination of micro-dotting vehicle chassis and coded entry systems for cars are now in progress. On the other hand, electronic fraud in the form of identity theft is skyrocketing, and we need counter measures to this scourge. Policing is also advancing in leaps and bounds, including more surveillance (including electronic) and forensic techniques (including DNA), among other measures.

Calls for more severe sentencing and tougher parole conditions may not in themselves prove much of a deterrent to crime. One authority has estimated that it would be cheaper to have 24/7 police (or neo-police) surveillance on convicted criminals in their homes than putting them in jails, which are more expensive and lead to recidivism.                            


So, what do we as a nation spend on addressing crime and its punishment? The chart below suggests we currently spend over $40 billion, with police and justice outlays accounting for almost two-thirds of the total. The chart doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. Clearly, we can add a lot of protective spending on security measures and devices for houses, buildings, motor vehicles and persons. These would add some billions of dollars to the total.

Much of 21st century Australia will prove, hopefully, to be less crime-ridden and safer than the closing decades of the 20th century. But, if so, it is because we are addressing crime differently in the new age we live in, both in terms of security and prevention, and by using forms of punishment that are less likely to involve prisons and the unfortunate recidivism they seem to breed.

For a printable PDF of this release, click here.