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Report criticises rising prison population

Prison numbers are surging to record highs throughout Australia despite a fall in crime, a new Productivity Commission report says.

Policymakers should consider alternatives to prison for people convicted of low- or medium-risk crime, it suggests.

Australian taxpayers shell out more than $5 billion each year to fund jails, amounting to more than $330 per prison per day and about 1.6 per cent of total government expenditure.

People who leave prison are likely to return. In mid-2020, nearly 60 per cent of the more than 40,000 Australians in prison had been there before.

That’s one of the highest rates in the world, says Commissioner Stephen King.

“The system isn’t working as well as it could be,” he said.

The rise in imprisonment numbers is happening in each state and territory, and is partly due to ‘tough on crime’ policies, Mr King said.

“This costs the taxpayer a lot but is not necessarily creating a safer society.”

Commissioner Richard Spencer says that incarcerating low-risk prisoners doesn’t keep society safer.

“We must look at alternatives,” he said, while acknowledging prison is “essential” for violent and high-risk offenders.

Those alternatives include more use of home detention, electronic monitoring or intensive rehabilitation.

The 159-page report also suggests looking at improving treatment in prison where offences have been caused by mental illness or addiction, and better support for people leaving custody to help to prevent re-offending.

Australia’s prison population has been rising steadily since the 1980s, and its imprisonment growth is now the third highest in the OECD, beaten only by Turkey and Colombia.

The rise is at least partly a policy choice, the commission says in its report.

But the reasons for it depends on the place. In NSW – which has seen the slowest growth in the imprisonment rate – it’s mostly due to growing sentence lengths.

In Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, offenders are becoming more likely to go to prison if convicted.

The imprisonment rate has grown fastest in the Northern Territory and South Australia – at about 87 per cent over the past two decades.

Imprisonment rates are highest in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Prison numbers fell during COVID-19, however.

According to the Productivity Commission, it’s because courts are operating more slowly during lockdowns, and because more people are being released or granted bail due to deliberate changes of policies or practices.

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