Mia Schlicht Discussing IPA Criminal Justice Reform Research Mornings 6PR – 14 June 2024

Written by:
14 June 2024
Mia Schlicht Discussing IPA Criminal Justice Reform Research Mornings 6PR – 14 June 2024 - Featured image

In this interview, Research Analyst Mia Schlicht discusses the need for criminal justice reform and better sentencing options.

All media appearances posted onto the IPA website are directly related to the promotion and dissemination of IPA research

Below is a transcript of the interview.


Gary Adshead:

Rightio. Here’s a quiz question for you. How much do you think it costs to keep a prisoner behind bars here in Australia? How much do you think it costs to keep a prisoner behind bars here in Australia? Might be more than you think. There’s been a study of what it costs in Australia to run our prisons by way of the prisoner per day rate, and then that all adds up to a lot of money. So, we’re going to get into that issue about what it costs to put someone behind bars, but also, is there a better way perhaps? So, let’s speak to Mia Schlicht, who’s a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and joins me on the line. G’day, Mia.

Mia Schlicht:

Good morning, Gary. Thanks for having me.

Gary Adshead:

I’m kind of glad you’ve put all this together for us because it’s something that comes up from time to time about how people say, “Oh, the cost of running our prisons.” You put it at around $6.4 billion each year.

Mia Schlicht:

That’s correct. So, that’s the amount that state and federal governments are spending across the country. Now in Western Australia, government’s spending about $950 million each year on the construction and operations of prisons. And this number’s just increasing as does the number of offenders being sentenced to prison.

Gary Adshead:

Now the figure in terms of keeping someone in prison, it turns out to be, let’s round it off, $154,000 per year. Is that going up as well? Have you noticed if you go back in time to see what it used to be, what it costs today?

Mia Schlicht:

Yep. So, that’s increasing each year and part of that increase is because we have to keep building more prisons as this number continues to increase. So, part of that construction cost and operation cost is included in that figure. Now, most concerningly is that about $2.4 billion of that each year is being spent on incarcerating nonviolent offenders, whose incarceration doesn’t actually pose much of a benefit to the community because they don’t necessarily pose a community safety risk.

Gary Adshead:

Okay. Because a lot of people listening to this would say that we don’t sentence people to long enough in jail. They don’t get hard enough sentences and they should be there longer. So, you’re suggesting that we should find another way to house those people or punish those people who don’t commit violent crimes. Is that right?

Mia Schlicht:

That’s right. So, this reform is really about getting smart on crime. It’s not about letting offenders off the hook. Any offender who has broken the law has done the wrong thing and they need to be punished, but prisons are really expensive for taxpayers. And many nonviolent offenders have committed nonviolent crimes and they don’t necessarily pose a risk to community safety. So, there are other ways that we could punish them that don’t also punish taxpayers.

Gary Adshead:

Is it a fine line though, because if you are someone that’s been defrauded, for example, of your life savings and it’s left you in ruins, that person deserves punishment, whoever’s done that. And there would be a lot of people that would say they deserve to go to prison. What would you say to that?

Mia Schlicht:

Absolutely, and that’s why this reform is we need to stay tough on these offenders, but particularly for financial offenders, their crime is often motivated by financial gain. So, if we punish them financially by making them work and pay back their victims and pay back the state through a fine and impose a range of other restrictions like home detention, electronic monitoring, it would better hit them where it actually hurt. And it would also better serve the interest of the victim because their losses could actually be restored, which often doesn’t happen currently when offenders are sentenced to prison.

Gary Adshead:

So, is there anywhere you’ve looked at in terms of that offender employment programme that you talked about there that they work and pay back money? Have you looked at systems elsewhere?

Mia Schlicht:

Yeah, so removing nonviolent offenders and punishing through offender employment programmes have seen huge success in conservative jurisdictions in the United States, like Texas and Georgia. And these reforms have been working really successfully in these areas for over a decade, and the results are quite remarkable. So, they’ve found that not only does this idea of save costs, but the crime rate has actually reduced because nonviolent offenders are able to reform and exit their life of crime by continuing in these roles of employment after their time has been served. And it’s also taken more violent criminals off the streets and allowed them to be locked away for longer periods of time.

Gary Adshead:

And I know that another possible solution is a much greater use of electronic bracelets example, curfews and so on and a like. Are you saying that they could actually be the sentence given to someone, that they must wear an ankle bracelet and be subjected to movement monitoring for a year or two years or three years?

Mia Schlicht:

So, this would be an alternative punishment that would need to be coupled with a range of other sanctions like financial penalties or a working programme. It would just ensure the offender is punished by restricting their liberties, but we would also put in a range of other punishments to ensure that they are reformed and that they are deterred from acting in the same way again in the future.

Gary Adshead:

More and more governments are dictating sentences through mandatory sentencing, which they bring in through legislation and that is passed on to the courts. And so, therefore, the judges and the magistrates must comply and hand out mandatory sentencing. Do you think that’s a mistake in terms of the fact that we’re seeing more and more… I know Acacia Prison, one of our ones over here, was a few hundred over muster quite recently, and that there was big issues inside that prison with unrest.

Mia Schlicht:

Listen, it is a mistake where we put in these blanket sentences where the judge isn’t afforded the opportunity to actually look at the type of offender and what risk they pose. So, for example, what we’re seeing with the nonviolent offenders is many of them have been sentenced to prison, but their incarceration actually isn’t posing any benefit to the community. So, we need to afford judges more discretion to tailor the punishment to the offender, so that they’re retributed for the crime, but it’s in a way that doesn’t punish taxpayers at the same time.

Gary Adshead:

All right. I’ll throw one at you here. I’ll be interested to get your response. But clearly, there are places in the world, and I’ll throw Singapore up there, where the punishment is corporal punishment, that means that they receive that punishment and they don’t have to spend time behind bars. What would you say to that as an option?

Mia Schlicht:

It’s a tricky option and it’s an expensive option. And what our reform looks at is ways that we can cut costs, so that we can redistribute those costs to other resources like putting police in the streets to stop offenders before they act. When you get to corporal punishment, it’s a severe punishment, it’s irreversible. So, we would say let’s put more resources into preventing crime before it happens and to prevent criminals from committing these serious acts, so we don’t have to quite get to that stage.

Gary Adshead:

So, from what you see of the data, is there any suggestion that what we are doing by sentencing more and more people perhaps to prison on the numbers that we’re looking at, I mean people anecdotally might say, “Oh, not enough people get put behind bars,” but on the numbers we’re looking at, is there any suggestion that things are tapering off that this method of incarceration is working? Or are we just seeing more and more people go into the system?

Mia Schlicht:

So, what’s interesting is that over the past decade in Western Australia, the violent crime rate has increased by 42 per cent, and at the same time, more and more prisoners are being sentenced to prison. So, whilst that shows that it’s just not working. What our research shows is that this money, instead of building more prisons and incarcerating more prisoners would be better spent on putting more police on the beat to deter crime before it happened.

Gary Adshead:

Okay. What about if anyone thinks, “Well, if I get caught, then I’m not going to go to prison. I’m going to be dealt with in another way,” it would lessen the deterrent factor. What about that?

Mia Schlicht:

So, this punishment would only be in place if the judge decides it’ll be appropriate for that offender. So, if this offender in any way tries to curtail the requirements of the punishment, it wouldn’t be suitable and they should be incarcerated. At the same time, this reform does not intend on being light on criminals. It’s a harsh penalty. Particularly the financial sanction, many of these offenders will have to work for the rest of their lives to pay it off. It’s certainly not getting light on crime, it’s just getting smart on crime.

Gary Adshead:

All right. Interesting food for thought no doubt about it. Because clearly, as state governments battle with budgets and they’re looking at how much they’re putting into the justice system and incarceration, you’re saying it’s going up and up and it’s not going to end anytime soon. Interesting to see whether our listeners agree with a change of thinking on how we go about this. Thanks very much for joining us, Mia.

Mia Schlicht:

Thank you.

Gary Adshead:

That’s Mia Schlicht. She’s a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.

This transcript from Mornings 6PR from 14 June 2024 has been edited for clarity.

Support the IPA

If you liked what you read, consider supporting the IPA. We are entirely funded by individual supporters like you. You can become an IPA member and/or make a tax-deductible donation.