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More Money Spent on Crime and Punishment

20 December 2016 at 11:41 am
Wendy Williams
Prison costs are “spiralling out of control” as more people are being put behind bars but it is “not making us safer”, according to a new report.

Wendy Williams | 20 December 2016 at 11:41 am


More Money Spent on Crime and Punishment
20 December 2016 at 11:41 am

Prison costs are “spiralling out of control” as more people are being put behind bars but it is “not making us safer”, according to a new report.

States of Justice: Criminal Justice Trends Across Australia, released by Jesuit Social Services on Tuesday, provides a comprehensive snapshot of criminal justice trends in all states and territories.

The report shows that despite the rate of offenders in Australia remaining relatively steady over the past five years, the national imprisonment rate has jumped by 25 per cent – resulting in a spike in the cost of prisons by almost a billion dollars during the same period.

The position paper summarises the situation saying: “In Australia today the crime rate is down, but the number of people in prison is up. The people who commit crime (and are increasingly likely to go to prison for it) are also likely to commit more crimes than was the case five years ago; we have been increasing our spending on prisons twice as fast as we have been increasing our spending on education; and the people we put in prison are often among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable among us.”

Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards told Pro Bono Australia News prison costs are spiralling out of control at “the cost of the vital services that help prevent crime before it occurs”.

“We’ve got the spike in costs going from $3 billion to $3.8, so nearly a billion more being spent there when it could be spent elsewhere, for example in education where we’ve only had a 10 per cent increase in spending over the last five years compared with that 25 per cent increase in prisons, so we’re getting something wrong,” Edwards said.

“We must work to steer many offenders who pose no risk to community safety away from prison and support them to address the underlying issues behind their offending.

“We all want safer communities – and prison is just a small part of the answer.”

The report draws together data sets from multiple sources including the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Trends over time indicate:

  • Nationally the rate of offenders has remained steady over the past five years however the imprisonment rate has jumped by 25 per cent during the same period.
  • From 2011 to 2015 the cost of imprisonment in Australia rose 26 per cent, from $3 billion to $3.8 billion.
  • The number of young offenders proceeded against by police has decreased by 20 per cent over the past five years.
  • Illicit drug offences have risen by 40 per cent nationally, including an increase in every state and territory.
  • The number of people on remand increased by 22 per cent between 2015 and 2016.
  • Recidivism is on the rise, with 44 per cent of prisoners returning in less than two years, compared to 39 per cent five years ago.

Edwards said there was a gap between public perception of the problem and the statistics.

“While law-and-order issues dominate headlines and public conversations, evidence does not match the perception many people seem to have that crime in Australia is out of control,” Edwards said.

“So I think what’s happening is we have a public conversation which has been captured, the media I think is feeding into this and creating fear and I think that is becoming a problem in its own right.

“What’s perhaps driven this is we’ve had some really terrible high profile cases over the years and they are of course a great tragedy and very disturbing but my concern is when those situations end up driving broad policy and practice reform or change.

“I think that we need to deal with serious violent offenders in a very stern and comprehensive way and make sure we keep the community safe but our concern is that in fact a lot of people are getting swept up into the criminal justice system, because we become more risk averse and what that means is we are not actually making the community safer because the recidivism rate we’ve seen has gone up as well.”

Edwards said prison was increasingly failing to rehabilitate people for their return to the community.

“Not only is prison expensive but it is not making us safer – shown by the fact that the percentage of people returning to prison has increased from 39.9 per cent to 44.3 per cent over the past five years,” she said.

“Within two years we’re more likely to see people back in prison and that is because prison is failing to rehabilitate people… they are getting more crowded, and less people are able to do programs and we are getting more people in their on remand.

“We’ve had a 22 per cent increase in remand just in the last year, and these are unsentenced people and they are often not getting programs and then they are released with nothing. So it is a serious concern.

“Prison is increasingly failing to rehabilitate people for their return to the community.

“We know 43 per cent of people are released into homelessness for example. So we’ve got to reinvest earlier as into education, early childhood programs, into helping people stay at school, get jobs and we know, know for a fact, that when we do that the crime rate goes down.”

Jesuit Social Services is calling on government to address the underlying factors of crime such as disadvantage, low education, unemployment, by investing in prevention, early intervention and diversion, and adopting a restorative justice approach to young offenders and victims.

“There is a place for prison in our society but many of the people we are incarcerating pose no threat to community safety,” Edwards said.

“For these people we need our governments to invest in rehabilitation and restorative justice approaches that we know make our communities safer.

“We feel we’re prepared to have a very tough stance on crime but we would like to see the effort go into preventing it and then when people have committed crime, intervening strongly to rehabilitate and to provide the necessary supports and monitoring that can help people [return to the community].”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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