The Australian Prison Boom and the Need for Decarceration

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Prison interior

The imprisonment rate in Australia has been on the rise since the 1970s. At present, it’s at an all-time high. As of June last year, there were 38,845 adult prisoners in Australian correctional facilities, which was an 8 percent increase on the year before.

The national incarceration rate in Australia is 208 inmates per 100,000 adults, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The rate is higher than those in Canada, the United Kingdom and most European nations.

But since 2001, the rates of most major categories of crime have either fallen or remained stable. Over the period 2001 to 2015, the robbery rate fell by 66 percent, the burglary by 67 percent and motor vehicle theft had dropped by 71 percent.

Dr Don Weatherburn, director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), is this state’s leading crime statistician. Last year, the doctor delivered a keynote address at the Applied Research in Crime and Justice Conference in Brisbane.

In his speech, titled Rack ’em, Pack ’em and Stack ’em’: Decarceration in an Age of Zero Tolerance, Dr Weatherburn addressed the causes that have led to the ever-increasing Australian incarceration rate, and outlined a five-pronged approach to reduce the prison population.

A tough on crime legislative turn

In the 1970s and early 80s, prison was used sparingly in Australia. There was rising discontent with the prison system and widespread public support for rehabilitation, Dr Weatherburn said.

In 1980, only 29 percent of those convicted of break, enter and steal ended up serving time, whereas in 2015, 50 percent of those convicted of the same crime were sent to prison. Before the commencement of “truth in sentencing” under the now revoked Sentencing Act 1989, inmates could earn reductions on their sentences for good behaviour and most people awaiting trial were granted bail.

However, a spike in crime rates occurred. Between 1974 and 1989, the per capita rate of recorded assaults rose by 381 percent, robbery rose by 121 percent and break and enters by 122 percent. A 1990 international crime report revealed that Australia had a higher property crime rate, than any other country surveyed.

Around this time, public concern about the rate of crime began growing. Politicians and the media were quick to pick up on it, according to Dr Weatherburn. And this lead to growing support for “tough law and order policies.”

Over the next 20 years, harsher sentencing regimes were established which focused on “punishment and incapacitation” rather than rehabilitation. These included the creation of mandatory minimum penalties, a tightening of bail laws, and “the requirement that non-parole periods be a fixed portion of the total sentence.”

Falling crime rates

But from 2001, crime rates plummeted. Most major categories of crime either fell or remained stable. Currently in NSW, crime rates are at their lowest in over forty years. As Dr Weatherburn pointed out, it might have been expected that the imprisonment rate would decline due to this drop, however, “this did not happen.”

Eighty percent of the growth in prison numbers between 2001 and 2015 was attributed to five categories of offence: illicit drug offences, sexual assault, acts intended to cause injury, offences against justice procedures and unlawful entry with intent.

However, over that same period, only one of these types of offence was on the rise, and that was illicit drug offences.

Dr Weatherburn said the reason the prison population has kept increasing is more to do with factors of the criminal justice system – such as “changes in policing policy, changes in court bail and sentencing decisions” – rather than any rise in crime.

Alternatives that haven’t worked

Due to concerns over the rising cost of detaining people in the 1980s and 90s, policy-makers introduced a range of non-custodial sentences, such as community service orders and suspended sentences. However, Dr Weatherburn explained these options “had little effect on the rate of imprisonment.”

A second wave of alternatives sentences, which focused on reducing reoffending, began being introduced in 2000. These included restorative justice practices and Drug Courts. But these also had little effect. And Dr Weatherburn puts this down to some methods being ineffective, while others that did work were never expanded to have a sizable effect.

Rising prison rates are not reducing crime

A 2015 BOCSAR report found that a 10 percent increase in the prison population results in a 1.1 percent reduction in property crime, and a 1.7 percent reduction in violent crime. Dr Weatherburn used these figures to estimate the impact of the rise in Australian imprisonment rates has had on crime.

He outlined that between 2001 and 2014, the Australian imprisonment rate rose by 28 percent. Therefore this should have resulted in a decline in theft and robbery rates by 5.6 percent. But over that period, these rates fell from between 67 to 77 percent.

The researchers of the report put the dramatic drop in these rates down to a rise in average weekly earnings, rather than the rising prison population.

The burden of rising imprisonment

The current cost of detaining the Australian prison population is $2.6 billion a year, Dr Weatherburn said. He noted that this amount is enough to put 100,000 students through university.

But there are other societal costs involved with having such a high prisoner population. Offenders have reduced employment opportunities and earning prospects after release. There’s also the impact incarceration has on children whose parents are in detention.

And courts are more likely to sentence someone to prison if they’ve already been detained before. So the greater the number of first time offenders being sent to prison is, the greater the number of reoffenders returning will be.

So what’s the answer?

Dr Weatherburn ended his speech with a number of changes that could be made to the criminal justice system that he believes would have a dramatic effect on decreasing the number of people being detained in the nation’s correctional facilities.

Abolishing sentences less than six months is the doctor’s first suggestion. About 14 percent of all prisoners receive such a sentence and Dr Weatherburn said that research shows these sentences have little deterrence value and the prospects of rehabilitation are limited.

A reduction in time spent in custody is also recommended. Dr Weatherburn told the audience that it’s been shown sentence length has no significant effect on rates of property or violent crimes. But rather, the risk of arrest – as well as the types of offenders that are being locked up – has an effect on these rates.

In NSW, along with Tasmania and WA, parole periods must be a fixed proportion of the overall sentence. This means that courts can’t impose a short sentence followed by an extended period of supervision.

One way to reduce long sentences, Dr Weatherburn said, is to restore discretion to the courts, allowing them to set the relationship between the overall sentence, and the non-parole period.

Breaches, bail and assaults

The doctor also recommended a change in approach to community-corrections orders. Since 2001, breaches of these orders account for 15 percent of the rise in the prison population.

In his opinion, parole boards should be given greater flexibility in responding to these breaches, rather than simply having to send offenders to prison.

Thirty seven percent of the rise in prison numbers since 2001 is attributed to acts intended to cause injury, the majority of which are assaults. However, as the doctor points out, there’s no evidence that assault rates are increasing. Indeed, the percentage of victims of assault is decreasing in this country.

Dr Weatherburn said the evidence shows that those who’ve committed assaults have low reoffending levels. He agrees there are reasons for imposing sentences on people who have committed serious assaults.

But, there are many people who are sent to prison for common assault – the least serious form of the offence – and these people could be placed on community-based sanctions, he suggested.

His last recommendation is to take “a more rational approach to bail.” There should be a greater emphasis on considering whether the accused poses a threat to the community, might abscond or reoffend. As at present, there are many people detained in gaol on remand, who will eventually be acquitted.

A plea to the pollies

“The final option for state and territory governments to reduce their prison populations is by far the easiest,” Dr Weatherburn told his audience. He suggested “simply toning down the political rhetoric on law and order.”

“If politicians keep demanding tougher penalties,” he concluded, “courts will eventually deliver them.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.
Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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