New approach needed to cut soaring jail rates

Despite falling crime statistics,Australia’s imprisonment rates have more than doubled over the past 15 years at a cost to taxpayers of $2.6 billion a year.

NSW Bureau of Crime and Statistics Director Dr Don Weatherburn, who is the keynote speaker at Griffith University’sApplied Research in Crime and Justice conference,said with 36,000 people behind bars, Australia’s imprisonment rates now exceeded that of Canada, the UK and most of Europe.

“The number of Aboriginal people in custody is 45 per cent higher than it was 25 years ago when Australian governments committed to reducing the number,’’ Dr Weatherburn said.

“If this trend continues,within three yearswe’ll have more than 43,000 people in prison at a cost of $3.5 billion. And that doesn’t include the cost of building new prisons.

“The rapid growth might be understandable if we were in the middle of a crime wave but we’re not.”

Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime and Statistics
Dr Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime and Statistics

Despite growing problems with methamphetamine and cyber-crime, he said the main reasons for increased imprisonment rates are government policies that result in people being refused bail, more receiving a prison sentence and more remaining in prison for longer periods.

“But the financial cost of prison isn’t the only drawback. When you put someone in prison you reduce their future employment and earnings prospects.

“If you use prison too much as we have with Indigenous Australians, arrest and imprisonment become a rite of passage.

“When governments are faced with rapidly rising prison populations, the growth in spending on offender treatment and rehabilitation rarely keeps pace with spending on spending on bricks, mortar, prison officers and security systems.”

DrWeatherburn outlined five options for restraining growth in Australia’s imprisonment rate.

  1. Give courts greater discretion in setting parole periods.
  2. Reallocate resources so that risk of detection for breach of a community corrections orderis higher but the punishment for non-serious breaches is lower.
  3. Reduce the number of people receiving a custodial sentence for non-serious assaults.
  4. Abolish fully-suspended sentences which account for 11 per cent of all non-fine penalties, and can result in imprisonment of breach of conditions.
  5. Tone down harsh political rhetoric on law and order.

“If politicians keep demanding tougher penalties, courts will deliver them. We can keep doing this for another 30 years, or we can offer Australians a more rational and considered approach to law and order and spend the savings on things they really want.”