Jump in prison population highlights the need for better solutions

13 January 2015 | Human Rights Law Centre

Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last month show a 10 percent jump in the number of people in Australian prisons, bringing the prison population to a 10 year high.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said the trend of locking up more and more people is alarming, particularly given there are cheaper and more effective ways to keep the community safe.

“We’re not in the grip of a crime wave that’s driving up our prison population; it’s misguided and heavy handed law and order policies that are putting more strain on our prison systems and requiring ever increasing amounts of money. There are smarter ways to prevent crime, we’ve seen them work overseas, and it’s time to embrace them here,” said Ms Barson.

Rather than simply spending more money to lock more people up, policies such as ‘justice reinvestment’ initiatives see funding channeled into community based services aimed at addressing the underlying causes of offending and preventing re-offending in the long-term. Justice reinvestment programs are delivering good results in American states that previously faced soaring prison numbers and costs.

“We know that community-based sentencing options can work better than prison and we know that early intervention is more effective and far less costly. Money spent outside of prisons on social services would go a long way as it helps prevent certain crimes from occurring in the first place,” said Ms Barson.

Ms Barson said current policies have a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise just three percent of the general population, yet over one quarter of the prison population. Clearly, our criminal justice systems are having an unequal and negative impact,” said Ms Barson.

Some jurisdictions are poorer performers than others. In the Northern Territory, for example, which has the highest imprisonment rate in the country, Aboriginal people represent over 85 percent of the prison population, yet only around 30 per cent of the general population. Ms Barson said something needs to be done to stop imprisonment rates soaring, but jurisdictions like the Northern Territory seem to be going in the opposite direction.

Over the Christmas period, the Northern Territory moved its young detainees into the run-down, adult prison – which the NT’s own Corrections Commissioner has previously said was only fit for a bull dozer – while the adults have been moved into a purpose-built, new facility.

“When it comes to young people, the focus should always be on rehabilitating them, but if they need to be in prison for a period of time, then the prison should be designed to enhance their education and rehabilitation. Locking young people up in an old adult prison risks exacerbating the Northern Territory’s already alarming imprisonment rates. We need a smarter approach. What we don’t need is sub-standard prisons,” said Ms Barson.

More broadly, Ms Barson said if the NT wants to halt increasing imprisonment rates, it needs to embrace a justice reinvestment approach.

“We know that justice reinvestment works to cut crime, cut prison numbers and cut spending. But by and large, this evidence is being ignored,” said Ms Barson.

For further information, please contact:
Ruth Barson, Senior Lawyer, Human Rights Law Centre on 0417 773 037 or via