Prisons are expensive. They rarely enable people to address the behaviour that puts them there, and research shows that sentencing more people to prison for longer periods of time does not reduce crime.
The best regarded research for the US shows that every 10% increase in the prison population produces just a 2% decrease in the crime rate.¹
The situation in Australia today does not show any reciprocal decrease in crime for every increase in the imprisonment rate; in fact, both are steadily rising. Imprisonment rates have gone from 120 per 100,000 head of population in 1992 to almost 150 in 2002, with only a small decrease between 2001-2 (ABS), while crimes like violent assault have increased by as much as 380% over the last two decades.
Australia's leading criminologist
and Director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) in NSW, Dr Don Weatherburn, suggests that the rising crime rate is due to the ineffective responses to law and order that "populist policy making" creates. Policies which promise tougher penalties achieve public acceptance and extensive airplay, but evidently do not impact the crime rate, if Western Australia
is anything to go by. The state with the toughest penalties for car theft was also the state with the highest incidence of car theft, that is, until a law was introduced that required all cars to be fitted with an immobiliser
- a $150 device that shuts off the electric and fuel systems unless the ignition key is used. Even though this succeeded in halving car theft and hence the amount of kids going to jail, politicians didn't really really talk about it.
Any serious attempt at reducing crime must involve a range of departments looking at practical
ways to combat crime, and working together to address crime as the social problem it is
, not merely something which requires criminal
justice system intervention
As it stands, the extensive use of prison is a very expensive option; not only in terms of monetary costs, but also the hidden social costs (which inevitably cause immeasurable monetary costs), and the health risks posed to prisoners and prison workers.
The monetary costs of running the prison system are phenomenal. In New South Wales
, the figure stands at $530 million per year. This translates to about $80 each year for every person in NSW. The cost of keeping an average offender in prison is $160 per day ($58,000 annually). In addition the Government spends around $90 million per year on building and maintaining prisons. Nowhere in these figures are the one-off scheme establishment and prisoner admission costs included. When compared with the daily costs of imprisonment, the daily costs of other punitive options like home detention ($56-59), probation
(general, $8), and community service orders ($3-5), prison is the least cost-effective.*
63% of NSW's current prison population are serving sentences of six months or less.** The daily cost of keeping these short-term prisoners is $154.27.² A report published in 2002 by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research entitled The Impact of Abolishing Short Prison Sentences
found that abolishing sentences of six months or less would reduce the number of prison admissions by 40%, reducing the overall prison population by 10%, and producing a cost saving between $33m and $47m per year in recurrent costs.
Sadly, considerations of cost-effectiveness don't often figure in public debates about crime.
However, the West Australian Government has announced their intention to abolish sentences of six months or less, and The Select Committee on the Increase in Prison Population has recommended to the NSW Government that they do the same.
If jailing more and more people were a tried and true solution, then why have we jailed more than 20 percent more people in NSW and we've got crime rates that are either growing or standing still? You'd think that with such a large increase in the prison population, we'd see a reduction in crime. We haven't.
- chairman of the Select Committee, John Ryan
Social impacts of imprisonment such as the loss of housing while in prison, difficulty in gaining employment post-release and poor health not only impact on the wellbeing of the individual, but of the society as a whole.
Many ex-prisoners who return to prison claim that lack of suitable housing is one of the main reasons they end up back in gaol, yet public housing in NSW has no special provision for ex-prisoners.
More often than not, ex-prisoners face difficulty in gaining employment, as they bear the stigma
of being a convicted criminal. This can severely and sometimes permanently damage their employment prospects. Imprisonment can cause already marginalised people to feel even more alienated, weakening personal identity and motivation. This exclusion from the community and lack of employment leads to social isolation and poverty, which in turn significantly increases the risk of reoffending.
Prisons also pose a serious health risk. One quarter to one-third of prison inmates have a mental illness
, which is often exacerbated by the pressure and isolation of prison life. It is also estimated that inmates are 3 to 4 times more likely to develop some kind of mental illness than the general population. Physically, prisoners are also at risk. NSW Magistrate
David Heilpern told Good Weekend
that 25% of young men in NSW gaols have been raped, some of those every day. Some experts have even called Heilpern's estimate "conservative." The sharing of needles is also a common practice in Australian gaols, leading to the risk of contracting HIV
C. Queensland has recorded one such incident of an inmate acquiring HIV/AIDS. The Commission of Inquiry into Drugs in Queensland Custodial Centres found that heroin
is freely available and widely used within Queensland
prisons, yet few harm minimisation tactics have been implemented, presumably because acknowledging the problem means taking responsibility for it. Moreover, 80% of women in prison are Hepatitis C
positive, (a disease only possible of contracting by introducing foreign blood, ie. needle sharing) compared with 1% of the general population.** Since March 1999, the Australian Red Cross
has made imprisonment in the previous 12 months an unacceptable factor for blood donation.
Jailing women is sometimes questionable, as they are rarely dangers to the public (of 3,300 female prisoners in the UK, 1% have been convicted of violence)³, and frequently have children with whom contact is lost, usually because of sheer distance between the jail and the home. Some women are all but demented with worry about their family, and drug and alcohol abuse can be real problems that continue until their release. For others who go in 'clean', the isolation from friends and community support and the pressures and boredom of prison life may have them addicts by their release.
Some studies have shown that children of prisoners are much less likely to complete secondary school, more likely to become homeless, unemployed and more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice or criminal justice system.
One of the main reasons prisons impact so negatively on women is that they are merely smaller versions of militaristic style prisons built for men. The high incidence of self-mutilation, suicide and psychological breakdown among women prisoners indicates their vulnerability. And just as a tidbit, it has only recently been ruled in the UK that pregnant female prisoners not
be handcuffed to their hospital bed when giving birth. (It had been previously thought that they might try to escape while in labour).
It is widely acknowledged that young offenders learn far more about crime within the prison walls than they ever could in the community. Hence, particularly for a first offence, jail is especially inappropriate for young offenders. The Young Offenders Act 1997 (NSW)
is designed to promote alternative dispute resolution options for young people. It fosters increased use of police warnings and cautions, and introduces the concept of youth justice conferencing.
A conference is used before going to a court proceeding. The young offender and his or her parents, the victim's family, and a mediator
aim to come up with an agreement. This is typically an apology, some kind of reparation for harm done, drug rehabilitation
for the offender and a penalty for the offence. It allows young people to address their offending behaviour
Youth justice conferencing is apparently quite effective, yet by July 1999 only 5% of juvenile crime matters were referred to a conference, and the juvenile prison population continues to rise. Furthermore, 80% of juveniles sentenced to detention will reoffend before they turn 18.***
It is important to find effective alternatives to prison for offenders who can be safely punished in the community. Many different ways of dealing with offenders have been developed, which don't carry the disadvantages and costs of prison: Supervision by probation officers and social workers, and the introduction of community work for the benefit of society. More recently new electronic methods of control and surveillance using technical means for treatment for the many whose crime is fuelled by drug addiction have been developed.
Everyday in the UK, around 500 offenders begin some kind of supervised Probation program, making non-custodial sentences the most common sanction imposed on the large majority of offenders. However, prison is used just as much as before. The main reasons community based sanctions are not used more are political fear that it will be seen as being 'soft' on crime, and the public's perception that it is so. In addition, there is often little administrative support for existing legislation. It is not because they don't work. There are no shortage of alternatives, but sentencers and the public aren't very interested in exploring them. Before their effectiveness can be evaluated, this must happen. Problems with employment and financial difficulties, loss of housing and drug abuse are all linked to reconviction. The expanding body of cases shows non-custodial sentences have yielded much more positive results than prison has.
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that the prison population is chiefly comprised of some of the most disadvantaged people in society:
- 75% have an alcohol or drug problem
- 64% have no stable family or suffered abuse or neglect as a child
- 60% are not functionally literate or numerate
- only 6.6% completed secondary school
- 20% are homeless prior to incarceration
- 21% have attempted suicide
The social costs of imprisonment make custody especially inappropriate for certain groups of people, and can in turn significantly increase the chance of reoffending, the exact opposite of what it is meant to do. Perhaps the recidivism
rate of 60% in NSW refutes the hypothesis that prison is a successful deterrent to crime, but more importantly it suggests that for many, it is in fact an indirect cause of their repeated failure to comply with the law.
- Increase the capacity of drug courts (which allow the offender to avoid jail by undergoing treatment for their addiction), to match the drug problem.
- Increase use of youth conferencing to take the majority of cases involving young offenders, and extend the concept of conferencing to adults.
- Introduce Restorative Justice, as is being trialled in the UK, similar to the Reparative Probation panels currently operating in the US state of Vermont. In RJ, a judge or magistrate decides the sentence length, but a separate panel, including the victim and members of the community, decide the content of the order.
- Establishment of an extensive community service framework.
- Introduce programs that aim to reduce reoffending, ''tailored'' to the offence and the offender, such as drink driving, substance abuse, sex offences, violent offenders, etc.
- Stop the passing of new bills that restrict judicial discretion. Judges should have more say so they can give a sentence that matches both the crime and the criminal.
- Enforce "intermediate" orders better so that breaches don't lead to more people in prison. In addition, better enforcement of fines would do the same for fine defaulters (even though this isn't as much of a problem as it was).
- Especially for young and female prisoners, the establishment of more post-release centres close to community facilities which allow them to reintegrate into society and gain employment, etc, and have more contact with family members, would significantly decrease the chance of reoffending, and improve their quality of life upon release. (There is currently only one such centre in NSW, Guthrie house, an 8 bed facility.)
- Provide more opportunities for education, and teaching of basic literacy, numeracy and life skills to prisoners.
- Expansion of methadone treatments, and harm minimisation for drug users.
- Investigation of corrupt prison guards, to stem the flow of drugs into prisons.
¹ The Bulletin, September 17, 2002
² The Impact of Abolishing Short Prison Sentences. (2002) S. Eyland, B. Lind
³ Prisons: Rough Justice. Vol. 355, The Economist, June 17 2000
* Annual Report on Government Services, 2001
** Sydney Morning Herald (News Review: The View From The Inside, Dec 1 2001)
*** 'Most in youth centres will reoffend,' (Luis M. Garcia, Sydney Morning Herald, October 27 1998)
Good Weekend: a sub-section of the Saturday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald