The most recent figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that the nation's prison population now officially stands at 43,028 inmates; a figure that is less than it was the previous year, albeit by just one percent.
However, the slight fall is nothing to be excited about, given that inmate numbers have been rising every year for the past seven.
Incarceration rates are determined by many factors, including crime rates; which have in fact been in steady decline in New South Wales over the past four decades. The rates are also affected by justice policies and in some cases, police arrest quotas.
More remand inmates behind bars
One of the reasons for the overall trend in rising incarceration rates is an increase in the number of people behind bars 'on remand'. These are people who are meant to be presumed 'innocent until proven guilty'; awaiting the finalisation of their cases.
This group now accounts for about 33 percent of the total prison population, a number that has been steadily increasing since around 2010 following numerous legislative changes to bail laws. Many of these 'on remand' inmates are affected by court delays – an inevitable consequence of a strained criminal justice system.
The rising number of prisoners, and the closing of older prisons, has been a significant contributing factor in overcrowding at correctional centres across the nation. In 2015-16, the average occupancy of NSW jails was 122% of the system's official capacity. In the year prior to that it was 112%.
Overcrowding in Australian prisons
Overcrowding is a problem in itself. While may would argue that prisoners don't actually deserve to live in comfort, corrective services still has a duty of care to meet basic needs including healthcare, nutrition and suitable accommodation.
Overcrowding is also associated with higher rates of violence and mental health problems, and it can also undermine the effectiveness of rehabilitation and educational programs too.
Typically, governments have tended to respond to the issue of overcrowding by building more prisons, as evidenced by the NSW government's recent commitment of $3.8 billion funding for new facilities and expansions, increasing capacity by 3,000 beds.
This is a controversial decision, because there have long been calls for these billions of dollars to be put to better use by addressing the root causes of criminal behaviour through early intervention, diversion, prevention and rehabilitation programmes. Repeated studies show that sending someone to prison can increase their chance of reoffending, by placing them into an environment with more hardened criminals, isolating them from their 'normal life' friends and family, and end their employment prospects.
The experience of the Netherlands for example, also clearly demonstrates that an emphasis on diversion, reintegration and rehabilitation programs, can be highly successful in deterring people away from the criminal justice system and from reoffending. The country also uses tracking devices, which means some offenders can serve 'time' while remaining part of the community. The nation has also shifted towards treating drug addiction as a health issue rather than criminal law problem, which has been instrumental in helping users to get the help they need and keep them out of prison.
There is a better way
The report, by conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), and authored by Andrew Bushnell suggests that our expensive and ineffective prison system is doing nothing more than creating a "class of persistent criminals" because it is failing to reform inmates.
While we spend about $17 billion on the entire criminal justice system, about 4.4 billion of this is spent on prison facilities. This is more than $110,000 per prisoner, per year. And this spending is growing at a faster rate than what the government spends on hospitals and policing.
By comparison, fellow common law countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand are all working to reduce their incarceration rates, and their spending on prison facilities.
It is time that Australia looked more seriously at other options too, because when you consider all of these factors, it's clear that our national spending is not getting the results we might expect.
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