In this article, Morgan Begg contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into Australia’s level of incarceration, and how low-risk and nonviolent offenders can help alleviate worker shortages, conducted as part of IPA’s Legal Rights Program. The IPA’s Legal Rights Program aims to research various government actions and policies and how they impact the principles of a free society, including the rule of law, our civil and political rights, and the equality of all Australians.
Law-abiding citizens rightfully expect that those who break the law are punished, which may well mean time behind bars.
Today, Australia’s criminal justice system is fast approaching breaking point, with urgent reform now required to stop the wasteful spending of taxpayers’ money, improve community safety and reduce unnecessary incarceration.
New data released last week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has confirmed a worrying increase in the national incarceration rate, to 205 prisoners per 100,000 adults in the population, up from 201 prisoners per 100,000 adults the same time last year. The rise in the incarceration rate was driven by increases in Queensland, NSW and Tasmania.
Significantly, this marks a reversal of recent trends.
In 2018, the incarceration rate reached an historic high of 221 prisoners per 100,000 adults but had been steadily declining since then.
This concerning rise in Australia’s incarceration rate presents our leaders with an opportunity to refocus the purpose of our prison system to improve community safety while ensuring offenders atone for their crimes by making a meaningful contribution to society.
Institute of Public Affairs’ research, led by international sentencing expert and former Dean of the Swinburne University’s Law School, Professor Mirko Bagaric, found that approximately 40 per cent of prisoners are behind bars for committing non-violent crimes.
Based on the latest ABS data, this means there are on average 41,833 persons in custody in Australia, of whom approximately 16,000 are in prison for non-violent offences.
On average it costs taxpayers $147,000 every year to detain a prisoner.
In other words, Australians are paying almost $2.5 billion every year to detain people who pose little ongoing risk and should not be in prison.
These offenders are distinct from those who commit violent and sexual crimes. Make no mistake, these offenders should be imprisoned, and often for longer sentences than they are currently given.
There is no doubt that it is entirely appropriate to imprison dangerous people.
Prisons are the harshest form of punishment available to the government and it should be reserved for only the most serious offences.
However, low-risk non-violent offenders should be punished in other ways, ways that benefit the community.
Coinciding with this incarceration crisis is the nation’s unprecedented – and inflation inducing – worker shortage.
The most recent ABS data indicates there are 438,000 job vacancies across the country, twice the number of job vacancies prior to the first Covid lockdowns, and that one-in-four businesses cannot find the workers they need.
The worker shortage could partly be alleviated by allowing low-risk non-violent offenders to have their prison terms substituted by a community-based sanction in the form of an offender employment program.
It is important to recognise that an offender employment program is not letting offenders off scot-free.
Offenders must obviously pay for their crimes but removing them from the community entirely does not rehabilitate them. We must find ways to integrate them into the community as productive participants.
When similar schemes have been implemented in the United States, the evidence firmly shows that employers are prepared to employ people who have prior convictions for non-violent offences and, when they do, they are satisfied with the outcomes.
It is a win-win-win for the employer, the employee and the community.
Our leaders must ask themselves whether they will continue wasting money on a prison system which is not enhancing community safety or whether it is time to change the approach to sentencing and ensure the community gets a return on its investment in the criminal justice system.