The cost of jailing someone in Australia – Money well spent?

In 2013 – 2014, the prison system cost Australia $2.6 billion. This works out to about $100,000 per year per inmate. The Productivity Commission puts the cost of each Australian prisoner at $292 per day.

Compare those figures to others that affect almost all Australians. According to UNESCO, the annual expenditure per secondary education student in Australia in 2010 was $10,350 (US). The average daily earnings in Australia are about $160. It comes as no surprise that many question whether the prison system is worth so much money.

Increasing Prison Populations

According to Business Insider, the prison population in Australia reached a record high of 35,467 by 2015. Recent “tough on crime” campaigns possibly affected the number of offenders behind bars. However, the Reference Committee report posed other causes:
-Policy decisions as well as the size of police forces
-The introduction of harsher sentencing policies
-Political responses to social concerns about crime levels
-Mandatory sentencing policies
-Territory Emergency Intervention, which increased police presence in remote communities
-The “effective criminalisation of driving” targeting unlicensed drivers and unregistered/uninsured vehicles where most offences involve     no alcohol nor harm to others
-The link between crime and substance abuse

Many inmates deserve imprisonment for their crimes, but money spent to maintain prisons might find better use elsewhere.

When Incarceration is a Huge Waste of Money

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee notes a number of indirect economic costs associated with incarceration:
-Loss of employment and deterioration of skills-
-Disruption of schooling for juveniles
-Increased demand for health and welfare services for prisoners and their families
-Loss of a parent and their income
-Poor health outcomes for prisoners, including a high risk of post-release mortality
-Loss of “engagement with the community”

One Supreme Court judge quoted in Business Insider stated, “It costs about $100,000, when I last looked, to send someone to jail for a year. So every time you send someone to jail for a year and they don’t need to be there, that’s a nurse you don’t employ, it’s a teacher you don’t employ, it’s a bit of road that doesn’t get fixed, it’s something that as a taxpayer you want that doesn’t happen.” The question becomes, what are appropriate alternatives?

Creating Special Courts- A Viable Alternative to Incarceration as Punishment?

Saving money may begin within the court system. The NSW Drug Court has specific eligibility requirements. Accepted offenders go through detoxification and assessment at a Drug Court Unit, which may take up to 2 weeks. The offender then appears in Drug Court, “…enters a guilty plea, receives a sentence that is suspended, and signs an undertaking to abide by his or her program conditions.” Treatment plans may include entering a residential rehabilitation centre, or living in a court approved residence.

Mental Health Courts

Mental health courts determine whether an offender was of sound mind when they committed a crime. The Queensland Mental Health Court accepts referrals of offenders who:
-Are or were mentally ill
-Have an intellectual disability
-Lacked “relevant capacity” at the time of the crime

Psychiatrists advise judges who decide if a defendant is of unsound mind, of diminished responsibility (if the charge is murder) or is unfit for trial. Offenders deemed fit for trial return to the original court. A defendant who is of unsound mind or unfit for trial may receive a forensic order for treatment. Defendants in cases not resulting in a forensic may receive a non-contact order concerning the victim of the alleged offence.

Some courts specifically handle domestic violence cases.

The Victoria Family Violence Courts

The Victorian Domestic Violence Courts work to:

-Improve access to courts
-Promote safety
-Increase accountability of perpetrators of violence against family members
-Encourage behavioural changes
-Protect children exposed to family violence
-Streamline the intervention order process
-Provide victim support services

These adjudication approaches all incorporate considerations of the underlying problems leading to the offence.

Other courts handle crimes in aboriginal communities. The imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was 15 times higher than non-Indigenous prisoners, and accounted for 27 per cent of the total prisoner population according to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee. Law Professor David Brown is quoted in the Australian as saying, “in a situation where 20 per cent of Aboriginal children have a parent or carer in prison, going to jail becomes a normal part of life, even a rite of passage, and loses any deterrent effect.” A 2014 report by the Chief Justice of Western Australia describes the Aboriginal community courts as having a “solution focus” and “operates in conjunction with panels of Aboriginal Elders who actively participate in the court process.”

Are Alternatives Worth It?

Under section 5 of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act, “A court must not sentence an offender to imprisonment unless it is satisfied, having considered all possible alternatives, that no penalty other than imprisonment is appropriate.” In a perfect world, prison should be the last sentencing alternative. “There’s money being wasted that could be spent better on other things, including crime prevention which would make us all safer in the first place,” states one Supreme Court judge quoted by Business Insider.