Whether for violence, public disorder or wage theft – there is no shortage of calls for more people to be sent to prison, and for longer.
However, decades of research have shown that prison is the least effective place to rehabilitate offenders. Studies have indicated that a stint in prison increases the likelihood that inmates will reoffend.
There are many reasons for this: whether because they have been rendered incapable of functioning on the outside by the trauma of incarceration or because being housed with the country’s worst-of-the-worst has rubbed off. Ultimately, prisons institutionalise inmates into a highly regulated way of life completely foreign to the real world.
Young people are particularly ill-suited to prison – detention renders them more likely to graduate from low-level juvenile offenders to lifetime criminals via a stint in corrections.
Moreover, despite being seen as the ultimate “stick” to ensure social order, prison is not a deterrent for most forms of offending. Crime is largely impulsive or driven by complex external factors on decision-making – the notion that offenders are “rational agents” weighing up the cost and benefits of offending has been largely debunked.
So, if prison doesn’t work, what are the alternatives?
Firstly, if people pose a risk to the community, they should be heavily monitored and controlled – but this can be done outside standard prison environments. Community corrections is already a part of Australia’s criminal justice system and has been found to effectively control and treat offending behaviour.
Offenders regularly report back to a case manager, who is tasked with funnelling the offender through educational programs, community work and treatment programs designed to correct anti-social thinking and behaviour. Community corrections is no “soft touch” and the risk of imprisonment looms large over programs if an offender breaks the rules.
Similar to community corrections but more therapeutic in nature are the various non-custodial treatment orders available for offenders whose offending relates to alcohol or illicit drug use or is connected to an underlying mental health condition.
Drug courts have operated in Australia since 1999 and have been found to reduce recidivism more effectively than conventional custodial sentences. The key to effective drug courts is the ability to make drug treatment orders, calling for the intensive treatment and monitoring of offenders with substance issues.
Similarly, specialty jurisdictions exist for offenders with mental health issues. For example, the Assessment and Referral Court List in Victoria deals with accused persons who have a mental illness or cognitive impairment, lining them out with treatment agencies to deal with the underlying causes of offending.
Not all forms of offending can be traced to underlying mental health issues, but for those offenders who do require treatment, it is the single most effective way to reduce reoffending.
For other forms of offending, a financial penalty may be more effective than a prison sentence. For example, many forms of “white-collar crime” are motivated by pursuit of status. Public naming and shaming, hefty fines and bans on certain forms of professional practice are more likely to deter white-collar offending than prison.
Moreover, victim-centred alternatives to standard prison sentences can provide empowerment for victims of crime. Restorative justice is a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.
This can involve victims being able to confront their attackers, seek financial restitution and to have a say on the programs the offender must undertake. While not suitable for all forms of offending, restorative justice measures have been shown to provide healing outcomes for both victims and offenders.
Finally, given our understanding of prison has a perverse mechanism to create more dangerous individuals, it’s worth reassessing the scope of our current criminal law.
There appears to be no reasonable justification why victimless crimes, from drug possession and use to sex work to “public order” crimes such as homelessness and public drunkenness, remain on the books. The potential for these offences to result in imprisonment is only going to result in a negative result for society as we turn harmless individuals into repeat – potentially violent – offenders.
Ultimately, a shift in thinking away from imprisonment as a default solution for criminals can free up the public purse for more effective preventive measures.
Justice reinvestment is a data-driven approach to improving the criminal justice system and reducing the expenditure incurred on it. It focuses on harnessing the cost savings of lower rates of imprisonment by reinvesting the funds into areas at risk of crime. The approach is evidence-based, following decades of research from public health, that a focus on prevention is often more cost-effective than focusing solely on a cure.
It’s time to rethink our approach to crime. While prison may seem like the obvious solution to anti-social behaviour, it is the least effective approach to making the community safer.
• Jarryd Bartle is a writer and public policy consultant