Productivity Commission calls for alternative policies as prisoners reach ‘historic highs’

By Jackson Graham

November 1, 2021

Commissioner Stephen King said there was no single reason for the trend. (Productivity Commission)

The Productivity Commission is calling for alternative punishments for lower-risk offending as crime rates fall but imprisonment reaches historic highs.

A new report says the offender rate fell by 18% between 2008-09 and 2019-20 Australia-wide, while the imprisonment rate rose by 25%. Since the 1980s, the imprisonment rate has been steadily rising. 

Commissioner Stephen King said there was no single reason for the trend, although “tough on crime” policies had contributed. 

But the report argues the risk of imprisonment and sentence length may have played less of a role in drawing down crime rates than other policies such as policing affecting the risk of arrest or conviction. 

Imprisonment is a deterrent to crime, the report acknowledges, and it removes dangerous individuals from society, serves as punishment and offers rehabilitation.

But the report points out prisons cost taxpayers more than $5 billion a year, which is the equivalent to more than $330 per prisoner per day.

The main costs include accommodation, supervision by staff, and services such as for health and transportation. 

‘“Despite this expense, the system isn’t working as well as it could be,” King said. 

The report argues a stronger evidence base of research is needed to guide policy decisions. 

Australia also has a high recidivism rate of around 60% of prisoners having served a prior prison sentence. 

The report, which takes an economic view of the problem, argues there could be alternatives that achieve better offender outcomes, preserve family and community networks, and improve post-release behaviour at lower fiscal cost. 

“Prisons are essential for violent and high-risk offenders. But there is a revolving door for people convicted of low-to-medium risk crime,” King said. 

“We can achieve better outcomes for them and society by carefully using alternatives to prison.” 

The report points out for alternatives to be successful, “a different balance of community expectations of safety, fairness, and confidence in the criminal justice system” would be required. 

It details home detention, electronic monitoring and rehabilitation programs as potential alternatives to alleviate congestion in the prison system. 

“Significant cost savings can be achieved if offenders can be placed in alternatives to short-term prison sentences,” the report states.


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