Crime Is Up And So Is The Cost Of Jailing Criminals

Written by:
6 February 2024
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In this article, Research Analyst Mia Schlicht contextualises and disseminates the IPA’s research on criminal justice reform.

The duty of our criminal justice system must be to ensure that the community feels safe, is safe, and criminals are effectively punished.

Throughout 2023, this was not the reality for many parts of NSW, particularly Sydney, with almost daily reports of violence.

The most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows over the 10-year period to 2022, the number of criminal offenders across the state had increased by 23 per cent.

Of particular concern is the increasingly violent nature of these crimes –over the period there has been a 33 per cent increase in offenders committing acts of violence.

The standard response from government to increasing levels of crime has been to increase spending on prisons, but this has failed to deter criminals from breaking the law.

New data released by the Productivity Commission revealed that during the past decade, annual state government spending on prisons had more than doubled.

In fact, the NSW government spends the most of all the states and territories on prisons. It currently costs the state’s taxpayers $159,800 to house just one prisoner per year.

With more than 12,300 offenders being held behind bars, it’s a $2bn bill for taxpayers.

This highlights that there is something fundamentally broken with the state’s criminal justice system. How can a state double its spending on jailing criminals, yet crime, particularly violent crime, be on the up?

Make no mistake, criminal behaviour, of any form, is unacceptable and offenders should be punished. But a significant problem that has developed across Australia is how prisons are used to house offenders who are convicted of a non-violent offences and pose little risk to community safety.

Sentencing reform in Australia is lagging other parts of the world.

In the US, conservative states such as Texas and Georgia have cut crime and saved billions of dollars by reducing the number of non-violent offenders incarcerated in prison, while sentencing them to alternative punishments such as offender-employment programs.

We all want to feel safe in our homes, want less crime on our streets, and want fewer victims of crime.
The best way to improve community safety is to prevent crime from occurring in the first place.

About 38 per cent of prisoners in NSW are currently incarcerated for non-violent offences, such as financial crimes, soaking up scarce justice resources. In fact, it costs the state about $746m per year to house non-violent offenders.

It is well established that a greater visible police presence increases the fear in an offender’s mind of being caught, and therefore deters offending.

Instead of spending millions on the incarceration of non-violent offenders, taxpayer funds should be spent unchaining police from their desks and putting them on patrol.

A further corollary is that resources currently used housing non-violent offenders can be redirected to detaining violent criminals for longer sentence periods.

None of this is to say non-violent crimes go unpunished, but what the data makes clear is that there is little benefit, and great expense, imprisoning those who do not pose a risk to community safety.

One alternative punishment to prison would allow low-risk offendersto substitute prison terms for employment with a willing business and a requirement to make restitution to victims and the community.

In pursuit of true criminal justice, it is imperative that we rethink the way in which we punish criminals.

The current view that prisons are the default punishment for all those who have broken the law is outdated and counter-productive, especially when there are better ways to invest in community safety.

It is time for policymakers to rethink sentencing so that the punishment fits the crime.

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