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Australia's prison dilemma

Commission research paper

This research paper was released on 29 October 2021.

Australia is putting more people in prison despite a fall in the number of criminal offenders. This paper looks at what is driving these trends, the costs on society and whether there are alternatives to prison that still keep the community safe but at a lower cost.

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  • Videos
  • Media release
  • Contents


Australia's Prison Dilemma webinar

On 12 November 2021, the Commission hosted an online event with expert panel and Q&A, discussing:

  • Why are imprisonment rates rising?
  • What is imprisonment costing the Australian community?
  • Are there alternatives to prison which can reduce costs without compromising community safety?

Moderated by Michael Brennan - Chair, Productivity Commission

Panellists include:

  • Stephen King - Commissioner, Productivity Commission (at 3:37)
  • Don Weatherburn PSM - Professor at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (15:37)
  • Helen Coventry - Jesuit Social Services (27:44)
  • Nicholas Cowdery AO QC FAAL - Adjunct Professor at the Sydney Institute of Criminology (41:56)

Q&A starts at 54:40

Australia's Prison Dilemma short video

Transcript of video

Over the last 20 years our imprisonment rates have increased by more than 35 per cent and our imprisonment numbers are growing faster than almost every other developed country.

[Image] Australia is 3rd in OECD Imprisonment rate growth between 2003-2018.

So, is Australia experiencing some kind of crime wave?

No. In fact the incidence of many types of crime has been falling.

Keeping people in jail is expensive, around $330 per prisoner per day.

[Image] $10,000 per prisoner per month.

So why do we have less crime but more people in prison?

A big factor is 'tough on crime' policies such as making bail harder to access and mandatory minimum prison sentences.

Prisons play an important role in keeping the community safe from violent offenders but many people in prison are considered low risk to the community.

[Image] Violent offences 58% offenders in prison 2020. Non-violent offences 42%. 15% Low risk.

Given the very high cost of imprisonment it is sensible to look at alternatives that can keep the community safe at a lower cost.

Our report looks at a range of options that have been trialled both in Australia and overseas.

[Image] Diversion. Home detention/early parole. Rehabilitation. Case management. System targets. Knowledge base.

Find out more by reading our latest research paper.

Media Release

Australia’s prison dilemma

Despite falling crime rates, imprisonment in Australia is at a historic high.

A report released today by the Productivity Commission says this is happening across all states and territories.

The report looks at these trends and the underlying drivers. It also investigates the benefits and costs of imprisonment and, what, if any, are the alternatives.

“It’s a complex story. There is no single reason why imprisonment has been increasing, but what we know is that ‘tough on crime’ policies have been a contributing factor.”

“This costs the taxpayer a lot but is not necessarily creating a safer society,” Commissioner Stephen King said.

While imprisonment plays an important role in Australian society, the report finds that prisons are expensive. They cost Australian taxpayers more than $5 billion per year, or more than $330 per prisoner per day.

“Despite this expense, the system isn’t working as well as it could be”, Commissioner King said. “Sixty percent of prisoners have been there before – one of the highest rates in the world.”

“For low risk prisoners this doesn’t keep society safer. We must look at alternatives,” Commissioner Richard Spencer said.

The report highlights the range of alternatives like community corrections orders, however recognises that while potentially lowering the costs, justice for victims is also an important consideration.

“Prisons are essential for violent and high-risk offenders. But there is a revolving door for people convicted of low-to-medium risk crime. We can achieve better outcomes for them and society by carefully using alternatives to prison,” Commissioner King said.

These alternatives include home detention, electronic monitoring and intensive rehabilitation programs. Our report includes several case studies where alternatives have been used both in Australia and overseas.

However a critical first step is building a stronger evidence base to guide policy decisions.

“By making better use of these alternatives there is an opportunity for the prison system to be more effective at maintaining community safety and significantly lowering the cost,” Commissioner Spencer said.

Media requests

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Report Contents

  • Preliminaries: Cover, Copyright and publication detail, Contents and Acknowledgments
  • Executive summary
  • 1. About this paper
    • 1.1 Australia’s criminal justice system
    • 1.2 Trade-offs in the criminal justice system
    • 1.3 Scope of the paper
  • 2. Setting the scene: imprisonment in Australia
    • 2.1 The prison population
    • 2.2 Imprisonment rates
    • 2.3 Offences and sentences
    • 2.4 Remand
    • 2.5 Recidivism
    • 2.6 Putting it all together
  • 3. Prison: an economic perspective
    • 3.1 The role of prison
    • 3.2 Fiscal costs of prison
    • 3.3 The indirect costs of imprisonment
  • 4. Case studies of alternative practice
    • 4.1 Taking opportunities for diversion
    • 4.2 Home detention, electronic monitoring and early parole
    • 4.3 Treatment in prison
    • 4.4 Effective case management for rehabilitation and release
    • 4.5 Clear system objectives and administrative guidance
    • 4.6 Greater use of benefit–cost assessments
    • 4.7 Drawing the threads together
  • 5. Where to from here?
    • 5.1 Building the evidence base
    • 5.2 More systematic research into the criminal justice system
    • 5.3 More trials and evaluation of improvements and alternatives to prison
    • 5.4 A whole of system approach
  • Appendices
  • A. Consultations
  • B. Drivers of imprisonment
  • C. Case Studies: data sources and methodology
  • Abbreviations
  • Glossary
  • References

Printed copies

Printed copies of this report can be purchased from Canprint Communications.

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