Australia’s Criminal Justice Costs: An International Comparison

Written by:
8 August 2017
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Incarceration in Australia is growing rapidly. The 2016 adult incarceration rate was 208 per 100,000 adults, up 28 percent from 2006. There are now more than 36,000 prisoners, up 39 percent from a decade ago.

The Institute of Public Affairs Criminal Justice Project has investigated the causes of this increase and policy ideas for rationalising the use of prisons in its reports, The Use of Prisons in Australia: Reform directions and Criminal justice reform: Lessons from the United States.

This paper provides an international comparison of the costs, scope, and effectiveness of criminal justice in Australia. It shows that Australia has:

  • the fifth most expensive prisons in the OECD, on a per prisoner basis;
  • the seventh fastest prison spending growth rate in the OECD;
  • a comparatively large and rapidly growing prison population;
  • a higher spend more per capita on police services than all but nine other developed countries;
  • more police per capita than all other common law countries except Ireland, with this measure growing at the fifth fastest rate in the OECD;
  • a population that feels less safe than the citizens of many comparable countries, and that may experience more crime than other peoples;
  • criminal justice systems that seem to be ineffective in correcting criminals’ behaviour (although international comparisons of this effectiveness are almost impossible).

Overall, there is reason to believe that Australians are receiving worse value for criminal justice spending than many other countries. Australians report their concern about crime, governments respond by hiring more police, and this feeds through the system to increased incarceration and higher costs. But the original problem – Australians’ perception of crime – persists. Either the increased spending is not preventing the growth of crime, or it is failing to reassure the public of their safety, or both. This report underscores the need for criminal justice reform in Australia.

Note: This report was updated in December 2017 to take advantage of newly-available figures from 2015 and to correct a calculation error in Figure 1.

To download the report click here

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