Australia’s incarceration rate is currently at its highest in a century, despite a significant drop in crime, and the Labor Productivity Commission is intervening to determine why.
In the coming weeks, the commission is to publish a study on the number of prisoners suggesting that this key component of the criminal justice system does not provide value for money.
More: Nation of Imprisonment Exposes the Racist Underpinnings of Policing and Imprisonment in Australia – But at What Cost?
He also recognizes the importance of the effectiveness of our prisons. In addition to the costs involved, they must provide justice and keep our community safe. And yet, for a significant proportion of inmates, there is a revolving prison-crime-prison revolving door.
Let’s look at the numbers.
This is not a crime wave
Australia’s crime rate fell 18% in the decade to 2020. During the same period, the incarceration rate increased by 25%. More than 40,000 Australians are currently in prison. Simply put, crime has dropped, but more and more people are being jailed.
As Commissioner Stephen King explains, the rise in the number of prisoners over the past 20 years has been largely as a result of the government’s “tough fight against crime” policies. This cost taxpayers about $ 13.5 billion more than if the number of incarcerated sentences remained unchanged.
He notes that Australia is “not in line” with other developed countries in this regard.
[United Nations] the data show that the growth in our prison population since 2003 was the third-highest in the OECD, behind only Turkey and Colombia. […] These numbers mistakenly point to some kind of Australian “crime wave”.
So why is crime falling?
One might be forgiven for suggesting that crime is now falling precisely because more people are going to jail. Perhaps there is a causal relationship?
There are two obvious reasons why this is not the case:
There are many other reasons why the crime rate can drop. Those who have studied the long-term decline in crime in Western democracies since the mid-1990s say this includes economic prosperity, good policing strategies, demographics (in 1995, the last baby boomer turned 35, age in where crime is significantly reduced.), social support and cheaper and better security devices.
There is no consistent relationship between the crime rate and the number of prisoners. Indeed, crime has declined in jurisdictions where incarceration rates have remained the same or declined.
Let’s take a closer look at this.
Queensland is a good example. From 2003 to 2012, the state’s prison population declined, along with a decline in violent and property crimes.
Other countries, such as Finland, have a very low crime rate and, at the same time, a very low incarceration rate.
Conversely, until the mid-1990s, the United States had a very high crime rate and still a very high incarceration rate. But when New York, New Jersey and California have declined by about 25% in recent years, their crime rates as a whole have declined at a faster rate than the national average.
Indeed, longer sentences can reduce the level of some crimes, simply by disconnecting criminals from the criminal market for a time. But this can lead to a decrease in recoil. That is, the money spent on additional prison beds will ultimately outweigh any savings that could be made from reducing crime.
Prison isn’t the only option
The Productivity Commission says the question for policymakers now is whether our current prison policy is delivering the best results for Australia. If not, what are the alternatives?
The Commission notes that there are several other options for low-risk offenders, such as home detention, especially if they are linked to mental health and drug and alcohol services.
Read more: How a maximum security prison offers a path to academic excellence and a Ph.D.
There is also the argument, put forward by theorists such as criminologist Elliot Curry, that a secure community is built on equality of opportunity and the development of strong social capital, which simply means creating more resilient and more dynamic communities that leave no one behind. This will include the creation and implementation of culturally safe programs led by indigenous communities.
Just imagine what could be achieved if $ 13.5 billion were spent on these initiatives, which would limit the likelihood that people will turn to crime or continue to commit delinquency rather than on custody services.
Spending Justice Dollars Differently
Thus, prison sentences, as necessary as they are, are a crude (and largely counterproductive) tool in the fight against crime.
It would be much better if we did our best to find better ways to spend our criminal justice dollars. As criminal justice specialist Bronwyn Naylor wrote, imprisonment is a political choice. It is worth repeating her call to invest “much more in schools, families and communities, and much less in prisons.”
Truly wise words.