Misaligned incentives in the Australian immigration system, or: moving to jail

Mandatory sentencing isn't so scary if you would quite like jail

An asylum boat carrying 150 people crosses to Australia. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Dodd of the Australian, News International's flagship antipodean paper:

Mandatory sentencing – a key element of Labor's policy to deter asylum boats – is having the opposite effect, encouraging Indonesian crew attracted by Australia's relatively high prison pay. Lawyer and former diplomat Anthony Sheldon says jailed crew members can make $20 a day in Australian jails, in his submission to the Gillard government's expert panel on asylum-seekers.

"The preference of a number of older fishermen is to remain in detention in Australia," Mr Sheldon says in the submission. "Depending on their jobs in prison, they can earn up to $20 per day, making them wealthy beyond comparison upon their return to their villages after their sentence is served. They also receive free dental and medical services during their imprisonment. Combined with the relative safety of their work in prison compared to the dangerous work at sea, Australian imprisonment is very desirable."

If you are trying to deter people by threatening bad things, it really is a good idea to make sure that they actually think of those things as bad. Australia is attempting to deter the people-smugglers asylum seekers pay to get them to its shores by mandating a five-year sentence for any crew member caught. Since the whole point of "asylum boats" is to end up in the hands of the authorities, that ought to be a valid deterrance.

Unfortunately, although Australian prisons aren't very nice by the standards of Australia, for an Indonesian fisherman contemplating a career change, they make an awfully good pitch, as Sheldon makes clear.

Of course, the Indonesians involved are working from incomplete information; as the policy is new, no-one has yet returned home after serving the full sentance. It may be that eventually they get back and tell everyone "steer clear", in which case the issue will come out in the wash. But until then, Australia has to find some other way to render the plan ineffective.

Making Australian prisons as bad as Indonesian ones isn't quite on, but Sheldon has a better idea:

A public awareness campaign about a prisoner exchange treaty with Indonesia, highlighting the fact that boat crews could face the risk of serving the balance of their prison terms in Indonesian jails would have a desired deterrent effect, he said.

Of course, all of this is based on the assumption that deterring the boats is good public policy – which may be the standard view in Australia, but is not necessarily true.