Over the past decade, rates of imprisonment in Victoria have risen by 21.5 per cent, with almost half of this occurring in the past two years. As a result of these increases, the last two State budgets have set aside more than $800 million to increase the capacity of our prisons. Given that our current system already costs around $100,000 per prisoner every year, the extra 2,500 beds on the way are going to make substantial impacts on future Victorian budgets.
In case you thought we were suffering from a massive crime wave, Police statistics actually show a 12 per cent drop in recorded offences over the same period. It would be convenient to conclude that offences dropped because these imprisonment trends were an effective deterrent, but in fact the opposite is true. The only time recorded offences showed a small increase over the last decade has been after the introduction of harsher sentencing policies.
The reality seems to be that there’s less correlation than you’d expect between rates of crime and rates of imprisonment. The recent increases in incarceration are the result of ‘tough on crime’ policies designed to make us all feel safe. A reasonable goal. We all deserve to feel safe in our homes and in the communities in which we live. But does ‘tough on crime’ really work?
As far as I can see, there is a few key issues: increasingly harsh sentencing strategies are a solution at the wrong end of the problem – they take effect after crimes have already been committed, instead of focusing on the causes of criminality or crime prevention. Imprisonment is also an incredibly expensive option, costing up to 10 times more than other community corrections alternatives. But worst of all, the evidence shows that not only does imprisonment not act as an effective deterrent, it increases the likelihood of reoffending.
There’s much about the Victorian Justice system of which we can be proud. Victoria has much lower per-capita rates of imprisonment than other Australian states. We’ve seen success with innovative ventures such as the Neighbourhood Justice Centre in Collingwood and the Court Integrated Services Program (CISP). There’s also a range of good proactive partnerships happening between police and the community sector, such as the SupportLink project and community safety initiatives in the CBD.
We can and should celebrate these things. Without them, the cost of correctional services would continue to skyrocket, and our State budgets would be under much greater pressure than they are today, with reduced opportunity to help those who need it and increased money forced into ‘too late’ systems.
All the more reason for us not to become complacent about the trends we’ve been seeing lately in the growth of prison numbers.
‘Tough on crime’ approaches are popular in election years. But this year, let’s ask for more than that. Why not invest in a system that addresses the causes and not just the consequences of crime, for a safe and fair community?
Captain Jason Davies-Kildea is the Manager of The Salvation Army Victoria Social Programme and Policy Unit (VSPPU)