Launceston Police Barracks, 1865 (AOT, PH30/1/9330)

Crime is an aspect of the history of Tasmania, just as it is of any society. However, on an island that, since European settlement, was characterised by its early use as an isolated prison for a miscellany of British wrongdoers and the deaths of many of the Indigenous population, crime and the various questions associated with it have a particular resonance. It is important to note the close relationship of crime to its context, both in the defining and the committing of crime. First, all crimes are defined within a particular historical period. Some activities that were once prohibited in Tasmania, no longer have any relevance: in the early years of the colony bushranging and absconding were common offences. Some activities, once permissible, have been criminalised, such as non-consensual sexual relations with one's spouse, now contrary to the Criminal Code (Tasmania) 1924. Changing cultural and social contexts have seen the framing of new laws reflecting attitudes to new kinds of behaviour, including laws against driving with alcohol in one's blood, motor vehicle stealing, and use of drugs such as ecstasy. Secondly, it is clear that crime rates are contingent on the circumstances in which crimes are committed. Crimes result from complex interactions among, for example, number of police and policing habits, detection and reporting rates, levels of poverty and employment, and various social and/or cultural incentives. This entry sketches a broad outline of Tasmanian crime trends since 1804. Less serious offences were dealt with in the Magistrates Court, serious offences in the Supreme Court.

Before 1824, records of crime levels exist, but they are sporadic and make comparison difficult. Population figures for the period do not include Indigenous people, or the total number of military officials present in the colony, although both types of person were occasionally counted as offenders and victims. The law applicable in the colony was a hybrid of British and military law. Crime was dealt with in the New South Wales Court of Criminal Jurisdiction, or by local magistrates who dealt with minor infringements and offences committed by convicts (except in the case of murder). Within their districts, magistrates also managed policing, sentencing and recording idiosyncratically. The inconvenience and expense of holding trials in New South Wales meant that extra work fell to magistrates and the jurisdictional boundaries between magistrates and the Criminal Court became blurred. Such extra work was recorded only desultorily. Crime seems to have largely consisted of convict misbehaviour.

After 1824 Van Diemen's Land had its own Supreme Court. Policing also gradually became more organised, and police magistrates were paid from 1827. In the early years of the colony, the rate of conviction for crimes deserving execution as punishment (for example, murder, bushranging and felony, sheep and cattle stealing and housebreaking) was high, and higher than corresponding rates in the colony of New South Wales. From 1824 to 1830 the average execution rate per 1000 people was 1.8. This high rate gradually declined. Rates of drunkenness and general misdemeanour (such as absconding, idleness, insolence, neglect of duty and disobedience of orders) among convicts were also high. In 1828, 91 people in every 1000 were convicted of drunkenness and 477 convicts in every 1000 were convicted of a misdemeanour. The rate of conviction for less serious offences also gradually declined.

In the 1850s transportation to Van Diemen's Land ended, the colony was renamed Tasmania and its legal institutions began to lose their military characteristics. Crime and Punishment in the Colonies: A Statistical Profile collates statistics for Tasmania from 1875, from which date a continuous series is available. These statistics reveal the following trends between 1875 and 1900. Convictions for offences against the person steadily declined in both the Magistrates Court and the Supreme Court. The Magistrates Court figures peaked at around 500 per 100,000 in the late 1870s, and plateaued at approximately 130 people for every 100,000 in the later 1890s. In the Supreme Court, rates decreased from a high of approximately 17 per 100,000 people in the late 1870s to 7 by the late 1890s. Magistrates Court convictions for crimes against property declined steeply around the late 1870s to a plateau at approximately 300 per 100,000, about half the rate of that in the 1890s. Supreme Court property crime figures also evidenced a declining trend, though the decline was neither so marked, nor as steady as that in the Magistrates Court; 80 convictions for every 100,000 was the approximate rate by 1899. Magistrates Court convictions for offences against good order also declined steeply from 1875 to 1900. In the late 1870s they peaked at approximately 3600 convictions for every 100,000 people and declined to approximately 1500 convictions in the late 1890s.

Tasmanian crime levels in the twentieth century can be fitted into two stages. In the first half of the century crime rates were more stable than in the nineteenth century. Crimes against the person in the Magistrates Court ranged between 40 and 55 convictions per 100,000 people until 1950. In the Supreme Court the trend dipped around both world wars, and gradually increased in the 1940s to 13 convictions per 100,000 people by 1950. Offences against property were particularly stable from 1900 to 1950, finishing this period at approximately 215 convictions per 100,000 people in the Magistrates Court and 38 in the Supreme Court. Good order offences decreased significantly until 1930 and then roughly stabilised at below half their rate at the beginning of the century, between 400 and 500 offences per 100,000. Petty offences steadily increased until 1950, finishing at a rate of 3196 convictions per 100,000 people.

In the second half of the twentieth century, crime rates began to increase, and peaked in the 1970s. The exception was good order offences, which remained roughly stable except for a small increase in the 1970s. In the second half of the twentieth century other drugs joined alcohol to influence offence rates, both as a factor in the commission of some crimes, particularly property crimes, as well as in a new category of offences. In 2000, drug offences increased by 39 percent from the previous year. In addition, use of motor vehicles became a focus of both legislative and police attention. Except for burglary, Tasmanian crime rates for 1999 were below the national average. Between 1995 and 1998 the homicide rate increased by 0.6 percent. Assault and sexual assault also increased in 1998 and 1999, by 27 percent and 20 percent respectively. Burglary declined in 1998 and 1999 by 12 percent, while armed robbery and unarmed robbery increased. Motor vehicle stealing increased by 37 percent between 1995 and 1999.

Further reading: A Castles, An Australian legal history, Sydney, 1982; R Davis, The Tasmanian gallows, Hobart, 1974; A Graycar, 'Crime in twentieth century Australia', Year book Australia, 200; S Mukherjee, 'Crime trends: a national perspective', D Chappell & P Wilson (eds), Crime and the criminal justice system in Australia, Sydney, 2000; S Mukherjee et al, Source book of Australian criminal & social statistics 19001980, Canberra, 1981; and Crime and punishment in the colonies, Sydney, [1986].

Emily Warner