The crisis emerging from the spiralling cost of housing ever increasing numbers of prisoners stems from the failure of governments to accept two incontestable premises. First, prison should be reserved for people who scare us, not those who anger us. Second, the principal aim of sentencing must be community protection and this should be determined by assessing the risks and needs of offenders.
The problem is so acute that in Victoria spending growth on prisons exceeds that directed to health or education. Moreover, the state government is spending 10 times more on new prisons than on public housing. It costs Victorians more than $130,000 annually to lock away each prisoner. At this rate, it soon will be cheaper to close every prison and ensure the safety of the community by simply assigning one prison officer to follow each offender around the clock as they wander around the community.
The criminal justice system is a policy debacle. Australian prison numbers broke 30,000 for the first time in 2013. I warned then this would lead to unsustainable public costs. Since then numbers have soared more than 40 per cent, to more than 43,000 prisoners. I also warned that this would lead to reflexive, unthinking changes to government policy and practice.
So it is not surprising that last week Victorian Corrections Minister Ben Carroll casually announced he was considering making rehabilitation a prime purpose of the corrections system. There is not a single criminologist on the planet who would argue with this approach but every one of them would take issue with the announcement being pursued without the sparsest information provided regarding how Victorian prisons would be converted from unremittingly punitive institutions to centres of rehabilitation.
Absent this explanation, Carroll’s comments are just another thought bubble adding to Victoria’s $1.8 billion annual corrections budget, while ensuring almost half our prisoners continue to return to prison within two years of release.
Here is the answer. The first part requires clarity regarding the nature of crime and the purpose of prison. Sentencing is the process through which the community acts in its most coercive nature against individuals. Prison is the harshest sanction in our system. It deprives offenders of much that is meaningful in their lives. It should be confined to acts that cause the greatest harm. The crimes that damage people the most involve sex and/or violence. Prison should be confined to these offenders who cause us this suffering; they scare us. They should always be imprisoned — normally for longer periods than is the case today.
But about 40 per cent of prisoners have not committed violent or sexual offences. Tax cheats, social security rorters and drug sellers make us angry because they break the rules and sometimes cause incidental harm in the community, but they don’t directly harm us. They need to be punished but it is self-defeating and disproportionate to spend more than $100,000 on them each year. We can find smarter and more measured solutions, including the expanded use of GPS tracking of offenders, limiting their movements within the community and stripping them of their assets.
Second, we need to identify accurately the nature of the risk presented by offenders. At present judges make totally unstructured judgments regarding the likelihood that a defendant will reoffend. Research shows they are poor at such predictions. Far more accurate are risk and assessment tools that evaluate the likelihood an offender will recidivate and identify the interventions that would best reduce reoffending.
Rehabilitation is always desirable, but it is pointless unless it is informed by scientific data regarding the means that are necessary to alter the attitudes of offenders. And we need the resources in the community and in prisons to implement rehabilitative programs.
Australia has a pitiable history of arbitrary and thoughtless criminal justice reforms. Nonetheless, the best approach to reforming offenders is to educate them. Educated people make more prudent decisions, have better risk-benefit barometers and have more to lose by committing crime. Prisons need to be turned to centres of learning, and conditions in prisons need to closely resemble those in the community without compromising security. This is the approach in Norway, where prison numbers are a fraction of ours. When Norwegian prisoners leave jail, they seldom return.
“Tough on crime” continues to be a vote winner for Australian politicians but not when it leads to second-rate schools and hospitals. The tipping point may have been finally reached when it’s not only prisoners who need to implement more educated approaches to problem solving.
Mirko Bagaric is Director of the Evidence-Based Sentencing and Criminal Justice Project at Swinburne University of Technology. This opinion piece was originally published in The Australian.