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.


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