One of the most important roles for government is the protection of people’s lives, liberty and possessions through a well-functioning criminal justice system. Keeping people safe from violence gives them confidence to live, work and raise a family.
And a key part of protecting the community is incarceration. Dangerous and antisocial criminals simply must be kept in isolation so that they cannot continue to harm others. This is the unique and defining function of prisons.
This is not to say, however, that public safety can only be secured through incarceration, or that it is better secured as incarceration rises. In some cases, where the offender is nonviolent and of little risk to the community, an alternative punishment may better serve the interests of justice.
Approximately 46 percent of the prison population are incarcerated for nonviolent offences. This may have been manageable in 1975 when there were only 8,900 people in jail. But now that number is over 36,000-an increase of more than 300 percent. Over this same period the total population grew by just 70 percent, resulting in the incarceration rate increasing to 196 per 100,000 adult population. This is higher than most other common law countries and the democracies of continental Europe (though much lower than the exceptional case of the United States).
For many of these nonviolent offenders, home detention, fines, restitution orders, and other such punishments might be preferable, either because they reduce the risk of recidivism or escalation of criminal behaviour or because they better realise the interests of victims. In these circumstances, changing the punishment mix can improve community safety.
Alternatives to prison also have the advantage of being less burdensome for the taxpayer.
The costs of criminal justice in Australia are rising sharply. In 2014-15 alone governments spent over $15 billion on criminal justice. The growth in prison numbers has seen an attendant explosion in prison costs. Australia spends nearly $4 billion each year on the construction and operation of prisons. This equates to $300 per prisoner per day, or $110,000 per year. This adds up to approximately $1.8 billion annually to incarcerate nonviolent offenders. It is vital that criminal justice spending is subject to the same scrutiny as all other major government programs. This means investigating and implementing more cost-effective approaches to criminal justice-and this implies a reconsideration of the role of prisons.
Unnecessary incarceration can also have downstream effects that lessen public safety and increase waste. Prisons have a poor record for rehabilitating criminals. Nationwide, 59 percent of prisoners have been previously incarcerated. Incarceration is associated with unemployment and worse lifetime economic outcomes. Imprisoning nonviolent, low-risk offenders can inadvertently turn them into hardened criminals who may never return to productive society. Criminal acts need to be punished. But where appropriate we should look to alternatives to prison that might better incentivise criminals to choose the right path in the future.
This paper presents the case for reform to Australia’s incarceration policies by describing the operation of criminal justice in Australia; investigating who is in the system; examining why those people are in the system in growing numbers; and suggesting directions toward an improved system.