The Expensive Problem With Our Prisons: Why Spending More Doesn’t Make Us Feel Safer

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8 August 2017
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Australia spends more on criminal justice than most other developed countries, but gets worse results. In world terms, we spend a lot on prisons and police but despite this, Australians consistently report feeling less safe than people in similar countries.

These are the findings of the latest report for the Institute of Public Affairs Criminal Justice Project, and they underline the need for criminal justice reform around Australia.

Australia’s prison population is expanding at an unprecedented rate. At 208 per 100,000 adults, our incarceration rate is at its highest point since Federation. Nationally, the number of prisoners has grown by 39 per cent in the past 10 years.

Between 2009 and 2014, Australia’s prison population grew faster than all but five other OECD countries. Comparable common law countries New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States all reduced their prison populations in this period.

For this reason, Australia’s prison expenditure is increasing rapidly: more than 25 per cent between 2010 and 2015.

On a per-prisoner basis, Australian prisons are the world’s fourth most expensive. It costs $110,000 to imprison someone for a year in this country. The OECD average is less than $65,000. The other common law countries all spend considerably less than Australia.

By contrast, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands spend considerably more than Australia. In Sweden, one year of incarceration costs $186,000. It is often argued Australia should follow the example of these countries, but rarely is it noted that to do so would result in a massive increase in prison spending, unless prisoner numbers were radically reduced.

The truth is that Australia is already in the top bracket for prison spending, with generous provision of resources for rehabilitation.

We are also spending more on police. In 2015, Australian governments spent $427 per person on police services, well above the OECD average of $367. Australia ranks in the top 10 on this measure.

This increased spending has been a result of growing police numbers, with the number of police per capita increasing more than 18 per cent between 2007 and 2015. Australia has a higher level of policing than all common law countries except Ireland and much higher than the Nordic countries and Japan and Korea.

Additional spending on prisons and police has not yet led to any improvement in Australians’ feeling of safety.

Australia ranked in the bottom third of OECD countries for residents reporting feeling safe at night in four OECD polls between 2007 and 2014. And while international crime comparisons are unreliable (because of different reporting standards) a 2005 OECD crime victimisation survey placed Australia in the middle band of developed countries. The number of offenders per 100,000 adults in Australia increased 14.5 per cent between 2009 and 2015, however, so it is possible Australia would now rank lower.

When you consider Australia has a high level of reoffending, with more than half of released prisoners returning to corrections within two years, it is clear that our increased criminal justice spending is not yielding the results we might rightly expect.

Addressing this underperformance should begin with punishment reform for non-violent, low-risk offenders. Violent criminals must be imprisoned to keep the community safe. But for other offenders, measures like home detention and community service — properly supervised of course — can achieve both retribution and better rehabilitation outcomes.

Reducing reoffending is the best way to reduce incarceration spending and crime. Unemployment is a known correlate of crime, and the ample resources of our prisons should be directed towards job training and literacy and numeracy. Policing has also been shown to be effective in reducing crime, but merely increasing police numbers is not enough. Police resources must be carefully targeted to known sources of crime.

Criminal justice reform can and must be achieved without abandoning our traditional principles of personal responsibility and fair punishment.

In our society, individuals must be held to account for their actions; they cannot pass the blame onto factors beyond their own agency.

By enforcing this principle, prison and police play a vital role in preserving our system of ordered liberty. Pathologising crime and rolling criminal justice into the welfare state detracts from individual agency and, thereby, human dignity.

And dignity, ultimately, is what criminal justice is about. We need to keep our communities safe so that people can go about their lives, raise their families, and prosper in their work. And we need to effectively correct the behaviour of criminals while delivering justice to victims.

A principled criminal justice system is a vital part of civilised society, and making sure our criminal justice system is working should be a concern for all sides of politics.

Especially since, right now, international data shows criminal justice in Australia could be doing much better.

(Image: ABC News, Reuters: Jorge Adorno)

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