Punishment in Convict-Settled Australia in Comparative Historical Perspective

face of a prisoner

Australia’s criminal justice system in the mid-nineteenth century imposed more punishment than did the U.S. and England & Wales. In Australia in 1858, the first year for which aggregate punishment statistics can be constructed, the overall prevalence of life-disposing punishment in Australia (execution and imprisonment) was 378 persons per 100,000 population. Executions accounted for 24% of persons absence in punishment. In the United States in 1858, punishment prevalence was 75 persons per 100,000. Executions accounted for only 6% of persons absent in punishment in the U.S. The overall prevalence of punishment in England & Wales in 1858 was 232, or about 60% of that in Australia. Execution accounted for only 2% of punishment in England & Wales in 1858. Compared to another overseas area of English settlement, the U.S., and compared to England & Wales itself, mid-nineteenth-century Australia punished more extensively and used execution more frequently. Available data, while incomplete, suggests that this difference was even more pronounced earlier in the nineteenth century.

comparative extent of punishment in Australia, U.S., and England & Wales from 1850 to 2010

Convicts transported from the United Kingdom accounted for a large share of European settlement of Australia in the first half of the nineteenth century. Transportation of convicts from the United Kingdom to Australia began in 1787. Transportation peaked at about 6000 convicts per year in the 1830s. After 1852, transportation decreased sharply. It ended in 1867. From 1786 to 1852, about 150 thousand convicts were transported to Australia. Australia’s total population in 1852 was about 500 thousand. Transported convicts and their offspring were a major share of Australia’s population in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The predominance of men among transported convicts and punishment’s bias toward men helps to explain relatively extensive punishment in mid-nineteenth century Australia. From 1787 to 1852, the aggregate sex ratio among convicts transported to Australia was about 5 males per female. In 1830, males were about three times as numerous as females in Australia. In 1852, males outnumbered females by 45%. Males were more likely to be punished than females, and more likely to be punished severely. For example, in the Australian state of Victoria from 1842 to 1967, males were more likely to be charged with a capital offense, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to be executed. A plausible estimate for the sex ratio of punishment in Australia about 1858 is 6 men per woman absent in punishment. That figure, along with the difference in population sex ratios in Australia and the United States, can account for most of the mid-nineteenth-century difference in the prevalence of punishment between Australia and the United States.

Sex Bias in Criminal Justice System of Victoria, Australia, 1842-1967

 charged with capital crimeconvicted of crime (% of charged)executed for crime (% of charged)persons executed
Source: Douglas and Laster (1991) p. 156, data available in executions Australia dataset.
males225624.6%7.9%178
females33513.5%1.5%5

In a sex-sensitive comparative perspective, convict-settled Australia punished surprisingly little. Today, persons imprisoned are often re-imprisoned. Differences in individual criminal propensities and recidivism are major issues in criminology. Adjusting for population sex ratios makes the prevalence of punishment in Australia and the U.S. nearly the same. That leaves little room for criminal effects of Australia’s distinctive convict settlement. Moreover, adjusting for population sex ratios, both Australia and the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century had a much lower prevalence of punishment than did England & Wales.

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