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Restoring true justice to a punitive system

By Peter Norden - posted Tuesday, 29 October 2002

Australian prisons are fast becoming the new asylums of the third millennium. The prison industry is booming, while Australia spends far less on mental health services than similar countries.

Most Australians actually believe there is a crime wave in this country. We have been manipulated by the tabloid headlines and the shock tactics of talkback radio hosts, complemented at times by the false advertising and posturing of political parties anxious to achieve or maintain power.

The debate about crime and punishment in Victoria as a precursor to the state election mirrors closely what has happened in recent years in other state election campaigns around Australia. Political leaders, supported by popular commentators, suggest that crime has risen dramatically and that criminal sanctions are not tough enough.


There is little room in this popular debate for reasoned argument, nor for recourse to accurate knowledge and reliable statistical information.

Already there has been a dramatic increase in the national adult imprisonment rate according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In the decade from 1990 to 2000, there was a 32 per cent increase in the rate of imprisonment, from 112 to 148 per 100,000 of the adult population. This represented an increase of 52 per cent in the total prison population from 14,305 in 1990 to 21,714 in 2000. This rate of increase has been sustained over the past two years.

The cost of imprisonment continues to increase year by year, as does every form of institutional care or residential service. Imprisonment costs vary according to the level of security of the facility, from around $30,000 a year for a minimum-security cell, through to about $120,000 a year for a maximum-security cell. Generally, the operating costs of each prison cell average out to about $50,000 a year. This does not take into account establishment costs, which average about $250,000 per cell. Nationally, the recurrent expenditure on corrective services totalled $1.5 billion for 2000-01, with $1.3 billion being spent on the operation of the country's 96 prisons. Such costs do not reflect the quality of the accommodation, but rather the costs of security installations, including wages of prison officers.

Despite repeated assertions to the contrary, and occasional misleading figures from groups with a partisan agenda, it is apparent from the most reliable sources available that there has not been a significant increase in serious crime across Australia, certainly not equivalent to the 52 per cent increase in the national prison population that has been recorded during the past decade.

The question to be asked of state and territory governments around Australia is this: if there has not been a proportionate increase in serious crime in the past decade, why should the Australian community pay for a 52 per cent increase in the prison population, at an average annual cost of around $50,000 a person?

If the Australian community received the same result rate from its education system or its health system, we would be demanding a better deal. Perhaps it is about time we moved forward, left behind our penal heritage and raised our expectations of the correctional services beyond one of retribution focused on punishment alone.


It is not possible to have such dramatic increases in the use of imprisonment during a decade and still maintain other essential community services, particularly in the areas of health, education and welfare.

So the question that ordinary taxpayers should be asking their state and territory governments is: if the results of our correctional system are so disappointing in terms of deterring people from committing crime and if the vast majority of those sent to prison reoffend after their release, why as a community are we spending an increasing percentage of the government dollar on constructing and operating new prisons?

Would the extra money being allocated in this way be better spent improving the educational opportunities of students from disadvantaged families, or by improving the health services for those with multiple needs?

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This article was first published in The Age on October 25, 2002. An expanded version will be posted to the Jesuit Social Services web site soon.

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About the Author

Peter Norden, AO is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne, based in the Melbourne Law School.

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