New ABS Data Reveals Worrying Rise In Prisoner Numbers

Written by:
21 September 2023
New ABS Data Reveals Worrying Rise In Prisoner Numbers - Featured image

“The alarming growth in Australia’s prisoner numbers is a sure sign we need a wholesale change in our criminal justice approach, one built on common sense, with community protection at its core,” said Mia Schlicht, Research Analyst at the Institute of Public Affairs.

Data released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals the number of people in prisons nationwide has increased from 40,627 to 42,204 over the past year, while the nation’s incarceration rate has increased to 206 prisoners per 100,000 adults from 202 at the same time last year.

The increase to the incarceration rate has been driven by alarming increases in Tasmania, Queensland, and Western Australia, with other states remaining stagnant. Over the past 12 months the incarceration rates have increased in:

  • Tasmania from 141 to 160 prisoners per 100,000 adults, up 14 per cent.
  • Queensland from 228 to 247 prisoners per 100,000 adults, up 8 per cent.
  • Western Australia from 293 to 303 prisoners per 100,000 adults, 3 per cent.

“Australia’s incarceration rate has increased in three of the last five quarters, leaving no doubt that rising prison numbers are a problem that must be addressed. These increases are also occurring at a time that Australian prisons are almost at 100 per cent of their designed capacity,” said Ms Schlicht.

Today’s ABS data follows research by the IPA that found 38 per cent of prisoners have been incarcerated for non-violent crimes. This amounts to approximately 16,000 people in prison for non-violent offences.

“To ensure our criminal justice system remains sustainable there needs to structural reform that acknowledges the difference between violent criminals who pose a risk to community safety, and non-violent offenders whose incarceration provides little overall safety benefit,” said Ms Schlicht.

“People who commit violent and sexual crimes should be imprisoned, often for longer periods than they are currently sentenced to, however low-risk and non-violent offenders should be punished in more productive ways that reduces recidivism.”

“More prisoners means more prisons will need to be built, imposing a heavy financial burden on taxpayers, when research shows investing money saved from over incarceration into crime prevention leads to far better community safety outcomes,” said Ms Schlicht.

In addition, IPA research has showed that Australia’s unprecedented worker shortage could be partly alleviated if low-risk, non-violent offenders’ prison terms were substituted for a community-based sanction through offender employment programs.

“It costs taxpayers in excess of $147,000 to detain a single prisoner for a year. At a time where a quarter of Australian businesses cannot find the workers they need, these non-violent offenders should be contributing to society by working, paying tax, and contributing to the nation,” said Ms Schlicht.

To download the IPA’s research click here.

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