Promoting people's rights and civil liberties. It is non-party political and independent of other organisations.
Prison: Costs up, numbers up

Prison: Costs up, numbers up

barbed-wireA parliament committee, examining justice reinvestment in Australia, has produced the latest statistics on our prison system. It costs more than $300 a day to keep a prisoner in jail, and more than $600 a day to keep a juvenile in detention. Taxpayers deserve a break: politicians should be working on ways to keep Australians out of prison.

Prison: Costs up, numbers up

 Prison numbers are up, more prisons are being built, in 30 years the imprisonment rate per 100,000 population has nearly doubled…and Indigenous people comprise 27% of prisoners, about nine times their proportion in the Australian population.

As well, Australian women are becoming more criminal. But we have no national or state ideas or a plan to reduce the numbers in prison…if only to save taxpayers having to pay more and more each year.

The British are free to call us “convicts”: there are relatively more Australians in prison that in the UK. But if we’re convicts, the Americans are a nation of thieves, muggers and murderers – there are 4.4 times more Americans in jail than Australians, pro rata.

The latest details of our criminal ways as a nation are revealed in a report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, chaired by The Greens’ Penny Wright of SA.

The report – Value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia – was released on 20 June 2013.

There were 114 custodial facilities across Australia at 30 June 2012 of which 87 are government-operated prisons, eight are privately operated prisons, four are transitional centres, one is a periodic detention centre and 14 are 24-hour court-cell complexes. In addition, all jurisdictions provide community corrections services which are responsible for non-custodial sanctions and deliver post-custodial interventions.

On average, 29,213 people per day (excluding periodic detainees) were held in Australian prisons during 2011–12. This was an increase of 1.7% over the average daily number in 2010–11. The daily average prison population in 2011–12 comprised 92.9% males and 7.1% females.

The number of unsentenced (on remand) prisoners comprised 23% of the total prison population at 30 June 2012. Over half (55%) of all prisoners had served a sentence in an adult prison prior to the current episode.3

At 30 June 2012, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners comprised just over a quarter (27% or 7,982) of the total prisoner population.

The age standardised imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners was 1,914 per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

This was 15 times higher than non-Indigenous prisoners for whom the age standardised imprisonment rate was 129 per 100,000 adult non-Indigenous population.

The most common offences for sentenced male prisoners were acts intended to cause injury (17%) and sexual assault (15%) while for females the most common were illicit drug offences (17% of female prisoners) and acts intended to cause injury (14%).

 Trends in imprisonment rates

 Australia’s adult imprisonment rate was 168 per 100,000 adults at 30 June 2012. This compares with 734 and 154 per 100,000 population in the United States and the United Kingdom respectively in 2010.

While the Australian imprisonment rate is significantly less than that of the United States and comparable to the United Kingdom, the rate has been increasing over recent decades. In 1984, the rate of imprisonment was approximately 86 per 100,000. Since that time the rate has nearly doubled.

While there was a recorded decrease in the rate of imprisonment between 2010 and 2011, the rate increased 11% over the last ten years.

All states and territories, with the exception of New South Wales and Queensland, recorded increased imprisonment rates compared to 2002, with fluctuations in imprisonment rates occurring within this ten year period.

The Northern Territory recorded the largest percentage increase in the imprisonment rate between 2002 and 2012, rising 72% (from 480 prisoners per 100,000 adult population to 826 prisoners per 100,000 adult population). Western Australia had an increase of 37% (from 195 to 267 prisoners per 100,000 adults).

The imprisonment rate in Queensland decreased between 2002 and 2012 (down 6%, from 168 to 159 prisoners per 100,000 adults). The imprisonment rate in New South Wales also decreased – down 1% (from 172 to 171 prisoners per 100,000 adults).

As noted above, the Northern Territory has had the highest increase in the rate of imprisonment for the period 2002 to 2012. The Northern Territory also recorded the highest proportional increase in prisoner numbers between 2011 and 2012 – 11%. The prisoner population decreased by 4% in New South Wales and by 3% in Tasmania between 2011 and 2012.

Female prisoners on the rise

The fastest growing area of the prison population is women prisoners. While the overall prison population increased 1% during 2011–12, the number of female prisoners increased 8%. The female imprisonment rate increased at a rate 21 times higher than the male rate.

 The Report on Government Services provides information on adult offenders released from prison who returned to corrective services within two years.

For those released nationally in 2009–10, 39.3% had returned to prison by 2011–12, while 46.1% had returned to corrective services.

The Northern Territory had the highest rate of return to prison (52.4%) while the ACT had the highest rate of return to corrective services (56.1%). South Australia recorded the lowest rate of return for both classes of returning prisoners (29.1% and 41.3% respectively).

The rate of return to prison under sentence has remained relatively stable since 2007–08 at about 40%.

 Trends in incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

 The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that there were 7,979 prisoners who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander at 30 June 2012.  This represented just over one quarter (27%) of the total prisoner population.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoner numbers increased by 4% between 2011 and 2012. The highest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners was in the Northern Territory (84% of the total prison population) and the lowest in Victoria (8%).

The age standardised rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners was 15 times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous prisoners at 30 June 2012, an increase in the ratio compared to 2011 (14 times higher).

The highest ratio of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to non-Indigenous imprisonment rates in Australia was in Western Australia (20 times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners). Tasmania had the lowest ratio (four times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners).

Between 2002 and 2012, imprisonment rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians increased from 1,262 to 1,914 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. In comparison, the rate for non-Indigenous prisoners increased from 123 to 129 per 100,000 adult non-Indigenous population.

There were proportionally more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners than non-Indigenous prisoners with prior imprisonment. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners had a prior adult imprisonment under sentence, compared with just under half (48%) of non-Indigenous prisoners.

 In some jurisdictions, the growth in imprisonment rates may be linked to an increase in offending behaviour.

 For example, the Youth Justice Advisory Committee stated that over the last five years offending behaviour has increased in Alice Springs. This includes a 173% increase in break-ins and an 80% increase in motor vehicle theft. Overall, criminal offences increased 45% over five years.

 However, in other jurisdictions crime rates have declined.

 In New South Wales, between 1990 and 2010, the rate of murder decreased 50%, motor vehicle theft decreased 70% and robbery with a firearm declined 66%.  In Victoria, crime rates have declined by an average of 18.4% over the last 10 years.

 The St Vincent de Paul Society noted that ‘taking national averages, it seems that violent crime has not increased over the last 20 years, while property crime rates have dropped significantly’.

 Economic costs

 Direct costs of imprisonment

The Report on Government Services 2013 provides information on the costs of the justice system. For 2011–12, the costs for police services, courts (criminal and civil) and corrective services was $14.02 billion. This was an increase from $12.3 billion in 2007–08.

The average annual growth rate for total costs was 3.3% over the period 2007–08 to 2011–12 with the growth rate for expenditure increasing for criminal courts by 3.5% and corrective services by 2.9%.1

The economic costs of imprisonment in Australia are substantial. For the 114 custodial facilities, reported recurrent expenditure on prisons and periodic detention centres was $2.4 billion in 2011–12, with an additional $0.5 billion expenditure on community corrections. Net operating expenditure on corrective services including depreciation was $3.1 billion in 2011–12; this was an increase of 4.8% over the previous year.

The Report on Government Services 2013 provided further information on the costs of the justice system:

  • cost per prisoner/offender – nationally in 2011–12, the total cost per prisoner per day, comprising net operating expenditure, depreciation, debt servicing fees and user cost of capital, was $305;
  • real net operating expenditure – nationally 2011–12 was $226, this was a decrease from $235 in 2007–08;
  • offender-to-staff ratio – nationally, on a daily average basis, there were 17 offenders for every one (full-time equivalent) community corrections staff member in 2011–12; and
  •  prison utilisation – prison utilisation was 94% of prison design capacity, for open prisons 90% and 96% for secure facilities.3

Juvenile detention costs $624 a day in WA, $652 a day in NSW

The committee was provided with details of expenditure in various jurisdictions.

The Western Australian Department of Corrective Services calculated that the cost per day for juvenile detention was $624 per person, and for juvenile community custody $77 per person. The cost of detaining a young person was $227,760 per annum.

In South Australia, annual operating expenses for the Department of Correctional Services were $226.5 million of which 61% were employee expenses. Of the operating expenses, $156 million was spent on custodial services, $37 million on rehabilitation and repatriation and $30 million on community based services. The average annual cost per prisoner is between $108,999 and $75,000.

In New South Wales in 2011–12, approximately $130.6 million was spent on custodial sentences and $70.4 million on community based supervision.

Recent modelling by the University of NSW found that the whole of life institutional costs of a female Aboriginal offender in NSW with a history of homelessness, drug and alcohol misuse, family violence and mental illness to be in the order of $1,118,126.

The cost of detaining a juvenile offender in NSW in 2010–11 was $652 per day compared to the cost of supervision in the community by Juvenile Justice NSW of $16.73 per day.

The Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Service provided information on the costs of imprisonment in the Northern Territory. The average cost per person per day in prison in the Northern Territory is $243.20.

Given the high rates of imprisonment, the cost per day of imprisonment is approximately $2 per adult Territorian per day ($733 per year). This compares with the national average daily cost of imprisonment of 52 cents per adult Australian per day ($193 per year).

Direct economic costs of imprisonment are expected to grow with a new prison currently in development in Darwin expected to cost approximately $495 million.

 Health is a major issue in prison…and when prisoners come out

 The overall prevalence of hepatitis is estimated to be between 23 and 47% for male prisoners and between 50 and 70% for female prisoners. As many prisoners move in and out of the corrections system quickly, these infections pose a risk to both the inmate and public health. Prisoners with histories of substance abuse are also at a higher risk of death once released, particularly death from drug overdose.

 The prison population is also at risk in relation to mental health. There is a high rate of mental health illness in the justice system with 31% of imprisoned individuals reporting they had been told by a health care professional that they had had a mental health disorder in their lifetime, ‘a rate 2.5 times higher than the general population’.

 In Australia, the upper age limit for treatment as a young person in the justice system is 17 in all states and territories except Queensland, where the limit is 16. However, some young people aged 18 and older are involved in the youth justice system – reasons for this include the offence being committed when the young person was aged 17 or younger, the continuation of supervision once they turn 18, or their vulnerability or immaturity.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) administers the Juvenile Justice National Minimum Data Set (JJ NMDS). Both Western Australia and the Northern Territory have not contributed to the NMDS since 2007–08. The AIHW estimates national totals based on previous data supplied from those jurisdictions.

AIHW data indicated that on an average day in 2011–12, there were almost 7,000 young people aged 10 and older under youth justice supervision. A total of 13,830 young people were supervised at some time during the year. Among those aged 10–17, this equates to a rate of 26 young people per 10,000 under supervision on an average day and 52 per 10,000 during the year.

Most young people under supervision are male and the majority are aged 14–17. Most young people are supervised in the community with 1,000 (14%) in detention on an average day in 2011–12.

Most young people in supervision were from cities (49%) and regional areas (40%). Young people aged 10–17 from remote areas were almost four times as likely to be under supervision on an average day as those from major cities (63 per 10,000 compared with 17 per 10,000), while those from very remote areas were six times as likely (103 compared with 17 per 10,000).

 The AIHW added that, based on postcode of last address, almost 2 in 5 young people under supervision on an average day were from the areas of the lowest socioeconomic status. Young people aged 10–17 from the areas of lowest socioeconomic status were five times as likely to be under supervision as those from the areas of highest socioeconomic status (42 per 10,000 compared with 9 per 10,000).5

 Indigenous young people

 Indigenous young people are over-represented in the justice system. Although less than 5% of young people are Indigenous, on an average day in 2011–12, 39% of those under supervision were Indigenous. In detention, this proportion was higher, where almost half (48%) are Indigenous.

 Nationally, there were 236 Indigenous young people per 10,000 aged 10–17 under justice supervision on an average day in 2011–12, compared with just 15 non-Indigenous young people per 10,000. Thus, Indigenous young people aged 10–17 were almost 16 times as likely to be under supervision as non-Indigenous young people.

 The trend in Indigenous young people under justice supervision is different to the national trend: between 2008–09 and 2011–12, there was an increase in the rate of Indigenous young people aged 10–17 under supervision on an average day from 226 to 236 per 10,000 population. The level of Indigenous over-representation increased in unsentenced detention over the period from 24 to 31 times the likelihood of non-Indigenous young people.

 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the most over-represented in Australia’s justice systems. The Report on Government Services Indigenous Compendium provided the following information for 2011–12:

  • the daily average number of Indigenous prisoners was 7757, 26.6% of prisoners nationally;
  • the national (crude) imprisonment rate per 100,000 Indigenous adults was 2246.3 compared with a corresponding rate of 123.7 for non-Indigenous prisoners;
  • the national age standardised imprisonment rate per 100,000 Indigenous adults was 1749.7 compared with a corresponding rate of 129.1 for non-Indigenous prisoners.

It was noted that there has been an increase in the incarceration of Indigenous prisoners. In 1991, the number of adult Indigenous prisoners was 2,140 and 14 per of all adult prisoners identified as Indigenous. Currently, Indigenous people comprise only 2.5% of Australia’s population they also incorporate over a quarter of the prison population.

The National Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services organisation also commented that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are incarcerated at a rate 14 times higher than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This rate has increased between 2000 and 2010 by almost 59% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and 35% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men.

The National Justice Chief Executive Officers (NJCEOs) also commented on the trend in Indigenous incarceration and stated that if the rate of Indigenous imprisonment is maintained at current levels, in 2021 the number of Indigenous people in prison on an average day will increase to 10,313.

However, if the rate continues to trend upwards as it has over the last decade, in 2021, the number of Indigenous people in prison on an average day will reach 13,558. The NJCEOs stated that this would represent ‘a virtual doubling of the number of Indigenous adults in prison over a period of 12 years’.

Alcohol and substance abuse

 Another disadvantaged group that is over-represented in the penal system is those individuals with a history of alcohol and substance abuse. The South Australian Justice Reinvestment Working Group cited the AIHW’s 2010 report on prisoner health which stated that:

  • 65% of Australia’s prisoners had used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to incarceration (compared with 15% of the general population using illicit drugs in the previous 12 months);
  • 50% reported drinking alcohol at levels that put them at risk; and
  • 73% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners reported alcohol issues.

 This excerpt from the committee’s report outlines the extent of the prison problem. The full report discusses justice renivestment, and make a series of recommendations:


  1. I am the mother of an inmate of NSW Corrective Services and has been on and of for the past 8 years and have seen very little rehabilitation or education in that time so have to question what the $305 per day per inmate is broken down into as this comes to $5000 plus per 17 inmates per Correctional Services Officer. This is his longest term and I worry that it wont be his last. He along with many others already had psychological issues. So if this help was given maybe just maybe we could cut the crime rate.

    Lyn Sullivan
  2. I would have to agree with some of the comments above. I know of a system that is working and people are being educated, trained, rehabilitated using a very clever method that has been put together by professionals using different theories and methodology. I know it works as I meet some of the people who did the program and where their lives are today is amazing, incredible in fact. Also, it saved the taxpayer $1.4 Billion dollars. We need to introduce this and help those people in prisons live a normal life. Who can i approach about this to introduce this to Australia.

    Donna Bacon
  3. What we need is a fresh look at releasing & rehabilitating non violent offenders back into the community. I agree that offenders need to pay & being an ex offender I believe in retraining offenders at minimal cost with wages in mind while training in their chosen field of rehabilitation. Whether it be metal work or carpentry or concreting or computers there are a wealth of teachers available that would cost less than incarcerating. Also is not corporal punishment flogging with a cane of cat of nine tails. That’s dark ages stuff & if you flog a prisoner it is counter productive & you are asking for law suits as well as pay back. Not the way to go.

    maurice dutton
  4. There must be some way prisoners can be made to earn their keep while incarcerated. Society already suffers at the hands of criminals and then suffers again to the tune of around $300 per day – a double hit to law biding citizens. This is not just.

    There would be less prisoners if corporal punishment was permitted. The crime would be dealt with then and there and the detainee, with some councelling/mentoring, would be able to move on with their lives. Jail time, being dragged out over months/ years could be seen as Psychologically more damaging let alone younger prisoners being negatively influenced by the more criminally hardened

    The other benefit of corporal punishment may allow for more prison space for sexual predators to be held in prison longer instead of being released too early only to then repeart more sexual deprivitations

    I thank you for your time in reading this missive.

    karen korycin

Leave a Reply

Translate »