IPA research: prisoner numbers costs $3.8bn a year

The IPA’s latest report, “The use of prisons in Australia: reform directions”, released today, was featured in The Australian by legal affairs editor Chris Merritt:

Groundbreaking research has revealed that the rate at which the nation is sending people to prison has jumped by 40 per cent in a decade and is costing taxpayers $3.8 billion a year.

More than 36,000 people are now in prison around the nation — at an annual cost of $110,000 per prisoner — compared to a ­national total in 1975 of just 8900 prisoners.

The rate at which people are going to prison in Australia is now 196 for every 100,000 people — which is the highest since just after federation.

With the exception of the US, Australia has a higher incarceration rate than other major common law countries and the democracies of continental Europe.

About 46 per cent of those in prison have been jailed for non­violent offences and taxpayers are paying $1.8bn every year to keep them there.

These findings are outlined in a new report by the Institute of Public Affairs that calls for governments to make greater use of alternatives to prison for non­violent offenders.

The report, by Andrew Bushnell and Daniel Wild, warns that the overuse of prisons is failing to keep the community safe from crime and is wasting resources that could be better spent elsewhere in the criminal justice system.

“While prisons are necessary for isolating violent and anti-­social criminals, there are other ways to punish nonviolent, low-risk offenders,” Mr Bushnell said.

… In February, the Australian Bar Association described man­datory sentencing as a national disgrace and endorsed the concept of “justice reinvestment”.

The IPA report warns that ­increased use of mandatory ­sentencing will increase the incarceration rate and calls for governments to wind back the use of strict liability offences.

But while the ABA wants less money spent on prisons and more money spent on community projects, the IPA report says savings from prisons should be spent on policing.

Simon Breheny, the IPA’s director of policy, argues that because criminals are generally more likely than others to respond to immediate incentives, deterrence is better achieved by increasing the chance of being caught rather than imposing longer sentences. “This in turn implies that money saved by reducing incarceration could be profitably invested in policing,” Mr Breheny says.

The report says people are jailed for several purposes but community safety is the only aim of the criminal justice system that cannot be achieved by other reasonable means.

“The criminal law should not sprawl into domains traditionally governed by the civil law,” the report says. “In cases where the remedies available in civil law courts would suffice, the criminal law is not needed.”

It says violent offenders should be jailed in order to protect society, but it backs a series of changes intended to help keep non-violent offenders out of prison. These include:

  • Extending the use of alternative punishments such as fines and home detention to nonviolent, low-risk offenders.
  • Limiting the use of strict liability offences and restoring the requirement of mens rea — or a guilty mind — for regulatory criminal offences. Where strict liability is imposed, the report calls for alternatives to prison when the offender has not demonstrated a propensity for violence or anti-social behaviour.
  • Ending the practice of sending people to prison for victimless crimes such as insider trading or mishandling trust accounts.
  • Allowing offenders to make restitution to victims of crime and taking this into account in sen­tencing.

Read The Australian‘s coverage here ($).

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