Queenslanders are facing a massive increase in criminal justice costs but without any promise the spending will lead to safer communities.
This is the key finding of a new Queensland Productivity Commission report on incarceration and reoffending.
The report shows a radical rise in the number of Queenslanders going to prison. The incarceration rate, meaning the proportion of adults who are in prison, has risen 44 per cent since 2012.
There are more than 9000 offenders in Queensland prisons, which are at 130 per cent capacity.
On average, each prisoner costs state taxpayers $107,000 per year. This works out to about $900 million each year for incarceration. What’s more, the report estimates that taxpayers are on the hook for up to $6.5 billion in new prison construction. That sort of money can buy a lot of schools and roads. Or hire more police.
Of course, by themselves these numbers do not tell the whole story. If every extra dollar makes us safer, then these are dollars well-spent.
But there is growing evidence that prison does not always increase community safety.
While crime has fallen overall in recent decades, prisons have grown less effective in correcting offenders’ behaviour. The number of prisoners who return to prison within two years of release has risen from 29 per cent to 40 per cent in the past decade.
The report suggests one of the reasons for this trend is more offenders serving short sentences. The median sentence is 3.9 months.
Short sentences are often used for non-violent crimes, like drug and property offences. Prison is a costly and often disproportionate punishment for these offences.
Sentences this short do not allow for rehabilitation programs but do expose offenders to the negative effects of prison, like being with other offenders and being separated from positive influences like family and work. The result is frequently an escalation of criminal behaviour – the opposite of what we hope our tax dollars are buying.
These findings reveal a starting point for criminal justice reform: strengthening alternative punishments for non-violent offending. As the commission notes, 70 per cent of offenders are already in some form of community corrections, but these punishments receive just 10 per cent of the corrections budget.
The main alternative to incarceration is community service, where offenders are put to work to repay some of their debt to society. Unfortunately, in Queensland, offenders serve on average just 30 hours of community service, even though they are ordered to serve 64 hours on average.
If community service is to be part of the solution, it needs to be a lot better, and a lot tougher, than it is right now. Our research shows that allowing for-profit businesses to participate in community service would increase the quality and quantity of the work offenders must perform.
Community service should be imposed together with electronic monitoring and restitution orders that require offenders to directly compensate their victims.
The Commission has also broken new ground by making Queensland the first state to consider whether criminal justice reform also means rethinking the scope of the criminal law. For example, many economic regulations carry criminal penalties when civil penalties would adequately capture their seriousness.
Expanding the criminal law can be wasteful both because of enforcement costs and in terms of reduced economic productivity. In that sense, it is akin to red tape.
In this way, the report reiterates its main point: everyone benefits from an efficient criminal justice system that focuses on preventing and prosecuting the most serious offences, and taking the most dangerous criminals off the streets.