The fundamental aims of the Australian criminal justice system include ensuring public safety, deterring criminal behaviour, holding offenders accountable and providing restitution for victims.
Incarceration plays a particular role in supporting these aims.
It is important that violent, antisocial, and dangerous criminals are removed from the community so that they cannot bring further harm onto others. This isolation of threats to the community is a useful and unique function of prisons. However, not all prisoners pose a community threat.
Australia’s imprisonment rate has increased sharply in the last four decades. In 1975, there were 8,900 people in prisons across Australia – there are now over 40,500. The number of prisoners has increased by 355 per cent despite the population of Australia increasing by just 86 per cent. This has resulted in an incarceration rate of 205 per 100,000 of the adult population which places Australia as one of the fastest growing incarcerators in the world amongst other OECD countries.
Of these 40,500 prisoners, 38 per cent have been imprisoned for non-violent offences. Alternative justice measures such as electronic monitoring, home detention, fines, tax penalties, restitution orders and other such measures may be preferable. These alternatives would better realise the interests of those who suffer the most from crimes, the victims, who have vocalised their discontent with the tough-on-crime rhetoric in Australia that has led to an overreliance on incarceration as a form of justice.
Opting for alternatives to prison not only provides better restitution for victims of crime, but is also less financially burdensome on taxpayers. Spending on the Australian criminal justice system is the highest it has ever been with governments spending $21 billion in 2021-2022 alone. The construction and maintenance of prisons cost the Australian taxpayer over $6 billion in the last year – an increase in $2 billion over the past five years. This equates to $405 per prisoner per day, or $147,900 per year. It is expected that this number will continue to increase as does the number of prisoners. Australian prisons are almost at 100 per cent capacity and new facilities will need to be built in order to house the growing number of prisoners.
In 2021-22, $2.3 billion was spent on incarcerating non-violent offenders. A one per cent shift in the number of non-violent offenders in prison would save the taxpayer more than $23 million per year.
The crime landscape across Australia has seen a change in recent years. Offender rates have declined along with the number of victims of crime. Despite this notable shift, sentencing reform has not responded. Of those fewer non-violent offenders, more are being imprisoned for short lengths of time which is contributing to Australia’s high reoffence rate. More than 60 per cent of Australia’s prison population has been previously incarcerated which is one of the highest reoffending rates in the world. Over a third of convicted prisoners in 2021-22 received a prison sentence of less than six months. Short and frequent sentences are associated with high recidivism rates and 66 per cent of these short sentences are served by non-violent offenders.
Incarceration reform must respond to the changes in the nature and reasons for offending to address the root cause of crime and make communities safer. Due to this lack of reform, incarceration is increasingly being viewed as a cause of the problem of offending rather than a solution. Imprisonment is a destabilising process that is linked with unemployment, instability and worse lifetime economic outcomes. The imprisonment of non-violent offenders can inadvertently turn them into serious criminals who are unable to reintegrate back into productive society.
Criminal behaviour must be punished. However, a distinction needs to be made between those we are afraid of and those we are mad at. For those who are low risk offenders, alternative justice measures should be imposed to punish behaviour whilst also incentivising criminals to make better decisions and foster their rehabilitation with the community.
This paper presents the case for reform to Australia’s incarceration policies by presenting the costs of the criminal justice system in Australia; investigating who is in the system and why; analysing the reasons behind the changing crime scene; and suggesting directions toward an improved system.
This paper finds that the policy surrounding incarceration has not changed for a long time despite obvious changes in the nature of offending and criminal behaviour. Prisons are being used for broader purposes than necessary. Of the aims of the criminal justice system – public safety, deterrence, retribution, and restitution – only public safety through incapacitation can uniquely be achieved by prison. Where public safety is not a concern, alternative methods should be introduced.
It is thus argued that prisons should be returned to their core and unique purpose of incapacitating violent offenders who pose a threat to public safety and antisocial repeat offenders who have failed to respond to alternative punishments.