Australia’s prison dilema

Meredith Baker, Stephen King1, Richard Spencer1

1Productivity Commission, Canberra, Australia

Australia’s imprisonment rates are around their highest in a century yet there has been a fall in many types of recorded crime. This Productivity Commission research paper focuses on the following questions arising from that observation.

  • What are the underlying drivers of rising imprisonment rates?
  • What is imprisonment costing the Australian community, including the narrow fiscal cost and broader individual and social costs?
  • Are there alternatives to prison which can reduce costs without compromising community safety?

Our analysis shows that there is a range of drivers of increased imprisonment, and that the relative importance of those drivers differs between states and territories. It also shows that some of the drivers arise from the policy choices made by governments. While there are good reasons underpinning those decisions, the Commission’s analysis highlights the costs of those choices. Imprisonment is expensive, both in terms of direct fiscal costs and its effects on the lives of the imprisoned individuals and their families, as well as society more broadly. Finally, we have explored a range of potential alternatives to prison that can be used or expanded at the margin, while reducing costs and maintaining community safety. At the same time, more work needs to be done to trial and evaluate the introduction (or expansion) of different options to ensure that they meet community expectations.


Dec 09 2021