Weatherburn, the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime
Statistics and Research, called for a complete rethink of the way crime is
dealt with in the face of an exploding prison population and a political
obsession with being "tough on crime".
Despite crime rates falling sharply since 2001, the
prison population has increased, largely due to more people –
being refused bail,
receiving prison terms for
minor crimes; and
·<![endif]>staying in for longer.
Australia has about 36,000 prisoners and is
spending more than $2.6 billion a year keeping them there. It is the most
expensive and least effective form of reducing crime.
"For Eileen Baldry, a leading
criminologist and University of New South Wales deputy vice-chancellor,
it’s a hard-headed approach, one that sucks up billions of dollars that
could otherwise go towards addressing the root causes of criminality
through early intervention,
diversion, prevention or rehabilitation programs.
Baldry says prison overcrowding is a product of failed political
and shows governments are unable to withstand the populist compulsion to
incarcerate and appear tough on crime.
“I think it’s also a failure of intellectual or evidence-based
leadership,” Baldry says. “I have talked to a number of treasurers
over decades in NSW, for example, and laid out in front of them the
cost of doing this.
“In many ways, many people in the public service understand this and
do put these kinds of arguments forward. But, you know, treasurers
and other ministers, when I talk to them, and this is both sides of
politics, they say, ‘Look, I know that, I understand that, but it
will just not fly with the public. It just will not fly with the
"Former NSW director of public prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdrey, is
one of those championing justice reinvestment. He is lobbying the NSW
government to invest in the program in the 2018-19 budget.
He agrees the overcrowding problem is a failure of political leadership,
and an inability to see past short-term electoral cycles.
“Sensible policy, especially in this area, takes more than three or
four years to bear fruit and politicians prefer to stick with the
tried and tested approach of ‘tough on crime,’” Cowdrey said.
“There doesn’t seem to be much room for ‘smart on crime’. The
community bears the cost and the consequences of such tunnel-visioned
Prison has long been considered an option of last resort in the criminal
But Cowdrey believes it is no longer being applied in that way. The
rising incarceration rate, he said, is largely a product of increases to
maximum sentences and tougher restrictions on bail.
“Despite the lip service paid to the requirement that imprisonment
be the punishment of last resort, it is not so used,” he said.
"Keith Hamburger, who formerly ran Queensland’s jail system as the
state’s first director general of corrective services, said prisons
“basically around the country at the moment are overcrowded”.
But “just building more prison cells and stuffing people into them is
not the answer”.
Most in jail were on short sentences and with a lack of treatment
programs to help stop reoffending. The system cried out for “a different
approach from our policymakers”, Hamburger said.
“We need high-security prisons for dangerous long term offenders,”
he told the Guardian. “But we are building far too many prison cells
for people who churn through, spend weeks or a few months on remand,
a few months in jail, then go out again.”
Surging prison numbers were one
result of populist “tough on
crime” lawmaking by state
governments, including mandatory sentencing and tougher hurdles for
bail, Hamburger said.
Many people, especially women, were stuck in jail because they could not
access safe accommodation or drug treatment programs they needed for
otherwise willing magistrates to grant bail, Hamburger said.
“Now, if we had bail hostels with substance abuse programs attached
to them, we could take a lot of people out of remand prisons around
Australia tomorrow,” Hamburger said.
“We’re just going about this the wrong way because it’s ridiculous
when somebody gets a bail order, particularly for women offenders,
and they’ve got a substance abuse problem and inappropriate or
unsafe accommodation, and we slot them into jail instead of looking
for a more cost-effective option."
“If government put a bit of effort into that in terms of times and
resources, that’d be far more cost-effective than jail.”
Hamburger said the Indigenous imprisonment rate was “shocking and in
terms of trying to do something, I reckon that’s low-hanging fruit”.
One of the few signs of any fall
in jail statistics was the Indigenous imprisonment rate in the Northern
Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, which both fell by 4% in
the last year, according to the ABS.
Hamburger said the rise in overall prison numbers demanded “meaningful”
action on two main fronts: rehabilitating offenders and getting them
back to a “law-abiding lifestyle” in their community, and “dealing with
the drivers of social and economic dislocation that a lot of communities
“Most [offenders] come from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds,
have had problematic education experiences and many come from
abusive and neglectful families,” Hamburger said. “Than we put them
in prisons, which are basically [overcrowded] around the country.
“There’s a lack of treatment programs and the great majority of
sentences are relatively short sentences.
“So just building more prison cells and stuffing people into them is
not the answer.”
"But looking squarely at the bitter reality of our crime
alternatives to jail for more offences,
spending on correcting
instead of warehousing
and trusting that our police are keeping
us safe are big steps towards a fairer, safer and more just
The report, by conservative think
tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), said despite spending an estimated
$16 billion a year on our criminal justice system, Australians felt less safe
than the citizens of many comparable countries.
Author Andrew Bushnell said Australia's
$4 billion prison system had created a "class of persistent
criminals" because it was failing to reform inmates.
The report — Australia's Criminal
Justice Costs: An International Comparison — said Australian prisons were the
fifth most expensive among 29 countries in the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands
made up the top three.
In Australia in 2015, the cost of
putting one person behind bars for a year was nearly $110,000. The OECD average
was $69,000 per person.
The study found incarceration rates
are growing rapidly — there are now 36,000 prisoners in Australia, up 39 per
cent from a decade ago.
"Over the past five years,
international figures show Australia's incarceration growth has outstripped
that of many comparable countries," the report said.
"Fellow common law countries,
the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand all
reduced their incarceration levels over the [same] period."
When you consider
Australia has a high level of reoffending, with more than half of released
prisoners returning to corrections within two years, it is clear that our
increased criminal justice spending is not yielding the results we might
Sarah Hopkins, a managing
solicitor for the Aboriginal Legal Service and chair of Just Reinvest
NSW, said workers in the justice system had reached "an all-time
high level of frustration".
"We have this entrenched public conversation around ... the need to
punish and the power of punishment to deter crime. When you look at the
evidence, it simply isn't true. Harsh punishment does not deter people
from committing crime," she said.
The Productivity Commission found 44.3 per cent of adult prisoners
released in 2012-13 returned to prison within two years, an increase
from 39.9 per cent in 2010-11. In NSW, the average cost per inmate, per
day, is $237.34.
A spokeswoman for the NSW government said they would consider the
contents of Dr Weatherburn's paper. "Community safety is the
government's number one priority and this requires an efficient and
effective justice system," she said.
NSW, it’s approximately $250 per day. By contrast, the
work of Community Restorative Centre ("CRC") was
costing an estimated $70 per day. Governments
continue to spend much more on locking people up
than on the cheaper options that prevent people
returning to jail.
Schetzer, from the Public Interest Advocacy
Centre, says: ‘It's dumb public policy. It's
dumb economics. It's costing the taxpayer an
enormous amount for these people to be
continually re-offending and re-incarcerated.
And we really need to look at a better way of
investing the public dollar that encourages that
reintegration into society so that people who
are released from prison can make that valuable
contribution to society.’
The Department of Corrective Services says
that under the new system, it will be spending
twice as much as it is currently on transition
programs. But there are concerns about the
efficacy of the new three month programs,
whether the pay rates can attract the degree of
skilled staff needed for complex clients, and
about case loads.
Professor Eileen Baldry from the University of
NSW, researches prison populations. Up to half
of prisoners have a mental health disorder, and
a significant minority—up to 15 per cent—have a
cognitive impairment. Professor Baldry has found
that there’s significant overlap of those and
‘Post-release,’ she says, ‘you really need
skilled workers, you need a range of
connections to the range of service
provisions that that person will need, and
you need time.’
‘This is not something which is going to be
addressed in three months or six months.
It’s something that’s going to take a long
There’s a dearth of research in Australia on
what works in post-release programs. However,
Professor Baldry says overseas research makes
clear what model is necessary.
‘[What] we know works is, some people call
it “wrap around”, some people call it
holistic, some people call it a “fully
supported housing project”. That’s the kind
of program that is most useful. Because what
it does, it addresses either sequentially or
at the same time, a lot of those issues.’
‘Work, particularly in the United Kingdom,
some in Canada and a bit in the United
States, shows very clearly that the
recidivism rates from those kinds of
programs are very low.’
Weatherburn, the director of the Bureau of Crime
Statistics and Research, says governments should
be focusing on recidivism above all else.
‘Well it's hugely important,’ he says. ‘We
tend to preoccupy ourselves with creating
alternatives to prison, forgetting that most
people going to prison this year, or last
year, are actually going back to prison.’
There’s more leverage, he says, in reducing the
prison population by reducing the rate of return
to prison, rather than reducing the number of
people who go there in the first instance.
Tackling recidivism is not politically popular,
however. The last NSW politician who tried was
the recently dumped Attorney-General, Greg
former media advisor, legal journalist Michael
Pelly, says Mr Smith’s interest in keeping
people out of jail, where possible, was popular
for a while—including with the new Premier, Mike
Baird, who was then the treasurer. Prison
numbers came down, and jails were closed.
‘The treasurer thought this was tremendous,’
says Mr Pelly. ‘Less money: $70,000 a year
for an adult, $250,000 a year for a
‘That adds up to a lot of hospital beds you
can provide. And a lot of deficit and
infrastructure you can build. And that was
all going very well until the pressure went
on, and the whole notion that anybody would
be seen as soft on crime.’
According to Mr Pelly, the pressure came largely
from one source: 2GB’s Ray Hadley.
‘Ray has very solid links to the police and
has a very particular view about law and
order policy, and his voice is extremely
‘Each parliamentary office up at Parliament
has a radio selection. And I can assure you
that from 9 o clock to 12 o'clock, I'd say
80 per cent of parliamentarians had Ray
Hadley on the radio and had Ray Hadley
telling them for a good four months that
Greg Smith is soft on crime, was a raving
lunatic, that Barry [O’Farrell] should sack
Gradually, Mr Smith lost the support of his
colleagues. Mr Pelly says he was frustrated that
amid the noise of the law and order rhetoric,
the fact that the Attorney-General was aiming
for a safer community was lost.
‘This is the whole folly of the exercise.
That it doesn't allow for a nuanced
‘Don't forget we were a penal colony,
founded on the idea that people could get a
fresh start. Macquarie emancipated the
convicts, made them productive members of