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Crime levels sink. Prisoner numbers soar. What’s going on?

In Australia’s smallest state, a natural experiment shows a humane and rational approach to crime works – and tough-on-crime strategies fail.

Hobart's Risdon Prison ... centrepiece of a cruel and crazy system

Tasmania’s prison system is awash with inmates. The government is planning an extra gaol to cope with the load. But new evidence shows that the tough-on-crime tactic isn’t needed and doesn’t work.

The evidence has been around for decades. But data on the differences between two groups of Tasmanian offenders – the young and the rest – provide important proof of what works and what doesn’t. It’s a natural experiment – a bit like a clinical trial, complete with a ‘treatment’ group (the young) and a ‘control’ group (everyone else).

There are radically different approaches to offenders, depending on their ages. Those under 18 are unlikely to be incarcerated but instead to be subject to a Youth Justice Supervision Order, under which they will be assigned a caseworker.

But those over 18 stand a strong chance of being sent to prison, where they will be denied adequate psychiatric care or social support, and where they are highly likely to reoffend. Sixty per cent of Australian prisoners have been in gaol before. In Tasmania, the figure is 68%.

Despite the hype from shock-jocks and tabloid newspapers, crime rates have been falling for decades. This chart shows the numbers of offenders charged by police in Tasmania over the past 12 years. You can see how far the numbers have fallen among all (largely adult) offenders, shown in orange; and how much further youth offender statistics have declined. (There’s an apparent increase right at the end of the series, but that’s because of a temporary slump in crime during the Covid lockdowns.)

 

It's hard, from these data, to understand why governments around the country, including in Tasmania, have pursued lock-’em-up policies like mandatory sentencing and longer prison terms. If there was a crime wave, such policies might have a rationale – but the crime wave doesn’t exist.

If more prison in the answer, what’s the question?

Despite the compelling evidence of a continuing slump in the figures for adult offenders (orange), the incarceration rate (blue) has soared.

If a harsh prison policy works, you’d expect its opposite – counselling, diversion programs, addiction treatment and so on – to fail. But they don’t fail.

Young people who are charged and found guilty of an offence are seldom locked up. Instead, they’re likely to be subject to youth justice supervision orders, and assigned a caseworker.

Youth Justice NSW describes how its youth justice caseworkers intervene:

  • Supporting young people who are detained in custody and are having difficulty being granted bail.
  • Delivering intervention programs that target young people’s offending behaviour.
  • Arranging specialised services from psychologists, such as psychological assessments and counselling.
  • Linking young people to services in their local community including drug and alcohol, mental health, mentoring services, social and sporting programs.
  • Helping young people remain in school or start other education courses, such as TAFE courses.
  • Helping young people find employment using local employment services.
  • Finding accommodation for young people experiencing homelessness or family breakdown.
  • Connecting with a young person’s cultural background and local community.

“Youth Justice caseworkers can also help young people by referring them to take part in offence-focused intervention programs,” says the department’s website. “These programs help young people address underlying issues related to offending behaviour, such as alcohol and drugs, anger management, stress management, and trauma.”

It seems to work. The decline in those being charged with an offence has not been matched with an increase in action taken against them. Just the opposite.

And the next chart shows the year-by-year numbers for young people under supervision in Tasmania. They fell and have stayed low, despite the apparently lenient treatment given to young offenders.

Between 2009 and 2022 there were massive decreases in almost every category for both youth and overall offending. The top six offences overall, which in 2022 accounted for two-thirds of the total, all fell sharply.

Once again, the results for the leniently-treated young offenders were even more impressive. The top six categories, which account for over three-quarters of all offences, fell by between 39% (assault) and 91% (public order) over the period.

Keeping people in prison is not only largely counterproductive; it’s also expensive. A research report by the Productivity Commission calculated that it cost between $107,000 (NSW) and $204,000 (ACT) to keep someone in prison for 12 months. And those costs have been rising at around 4.2% a year.

The Productivity Commission report found that community correction orders and diversion programs – a similar approach to that which is already routine in youth justice – is far cheaper, greatly decreases recidivism, provides far better rehabilitation and requires fewer staff.

As the report said, this approach is not suitable to all prisoners, particularly for violent offenders. But most people sent to gaol do not pose any significant risk to the community’s safety. People imprisoned for offences such as fraud, theft, drugs, public order and traffic violations account for half of all people in Australian prisons on an average day. And because more serious offenders – guilty of crimes like homicide, serious assault and abduction – receive much longer sentences, the figure under-estimates the number being imprisoned for less serious offences.

“More generally, said the report, “the majority of prisoners (70 per cent) serving short sentences are in prison for non-violent offences, such as theft and drug offences. These offences often have their root causes in poverty, drug addiction, homelessness and poor mental health.

“Short prison sentences for these types of offences disrupt family ties, housing, employment and treatment programs but are likely to offer little in terms of deterrence and rehabilitation.”

THE EUROPEAN ALTERNATIVE

Australia’s incarceration rate compares badly with those of most other rich countries. Among the 20 richest countries (measured by GDP per capita) only the US locks up more of its population than Australia. New Zealand and Britain, countries with similar attitudes to crime and punishment, are not far behind.

Taking the main outlier, the US, out of the equation, the average rate is 88 out of every 100,000 people. Australia’s rate is almost double that.

In every state and territory, incarceration rates have continued to rise. Over a decade, the national rate – already high by global standards – rose by a further 27%.

The nations of northern Europe do things differently. Denmark has an incarceration rate that’s 56% lower than Australia’s and a recidivism rate that’s half ours – 32% for them, 60% for us.

And when offenders in Denmark are sent to gaol, it’s a very different experience. Almost all Australia’s prisoners are in closed, traditional gaols with high walls and barbed wire. In Denmark, that’s reserved for the worst of the worst – psychopaths, terrorists, or those who have previously attempted to escape.

A Danish prison cell
The others are referred to as “detainees”, not as “prisoners”. Denmark’s open prisons minimise disruption to the lives of inmates, lessening the difficulty of returning to the community after release. They are allowed to leave during the day but must observe a curfew. They can attend classes, continue in their usual jobs, and do their own cooking and cleaning. Married couples with children under three are often allowed to live together.

If detainees break too many rules, they can expect to spend time in a closed prison.

The difference between the two systems is based on their different aims. Australia’s system is based primarily on punishment and retribution. Denmark’s is centred on rehabilitation.

Corrections officers also feel the benefit. In Australia, the psychological and physical burdens of their job can be shattering. Those burdens exist in Denmark too, but at vastly lower levels.

Australia is paying a high price for its insistence on retributive justice. There is far more crime than there needs to be; far more lives are destroyed; much more public money is spent that could be used for other things.

The evidence has been available for many years but governments have continued to ignore it. The populist appeal of law-and-order feeds a public view that prison is the best answer to crime – and it has been a reliable election winner for both major parties.

As long as that continues, nothing much is likely to change.



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