This piece originally appeared in the West Australian on 7 April 2017.
The new WA Government has said that it cannot afford to build a new $600 million prison planned by the previous government.
But this cost cannot be avoided simply by letting people out of prison. Criminal justice reform must always be about maximising community safety.
The Government is right to look for inefficiencies in the criminal justice system. WA has the country’s fastest growing prison population, increasing 14 per cent over 2015-16. The State has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country at 314 per 100,000, a 30 per cent increase over the past 10 years. This figure rises to 3997 per 100,000 for indigenous Western Australians.
The annual per prisoner cost of incarceration in the State is $130,000.
WA is not the first jurisdiction to face rising incarceration costs. Over the past 10 years, more than 20 American states have implemented reforms to lower the cost of incarceration while reducing crime and re-offending. The American experience yields some useful lessons for WA.
The first lesson is to implement punishment reform for non-violent offenders. In the words of former Texas politician Jerry Madden, we need to make a distinction between those offenders we are “afraid of” and those we are merely “mad at”. For the latter group, Texas expanded community-based punishments and treatment programs.
In practice, punishment reform means a significant portion of the money saved by not building new prisons still needs to be committed to the criminal justice system, to pay for case officers, halfway houses, and monitoring. Research also shows that police spending is effective for reducing crime. And in WA, the high level of indigenous incarceration may require special attention.
The real savings come from a longer-term reduction in crime and recidivism. Texas has avoided more than $3.9 billion in prison costs.
Serious property, violent, and sex crimes fell 12.8 per cent between 2003 and 2010.
WA Corrective Services Minister Fran Logan said he would like to focus on the remand population, which makes up 30 per cent of WA’s 6600-strong prisoner population. But the most serious offence of 46 per cent of WA prisoners was a non-violent offence, showing the potential for wider reforms. The second lesson is to reduce re-offending through skills training and employment.
About 60 per cent of WA prisoners have been imprisoned before. Research in Australia and the US has shown a strong correlation between unemployment and re-offending. While the Government will likely face some pressure to address crime through the welfare system, no excuses should be made for criminals. The Government should set high expectations for released offenders. This means insisting people become productive members of society and targeting assistance to that goal.
Texas and other American jurisdictions have tackled re-offending by expanding skills education, reducing barriers to employment and offering tax incentives to businesses that hire former prisoners. In Australia, the high minimum wage is a particular barrier for higher risk potential employees.
The Commonwealth should consider an exemption for ex-prisoners.
Whatever programs are put in place to reduce offending, they must be tracked and evaluated. This means that administrators and researchers must have reliable data. In the US, criminal justice reform typically begins with a top-to-bottom independent review of the system’s operation and oversight mechanisms.
The State Ombudsman has experience in conducting reviews of government administration and would likely be able to perform this function.
Finally, the Government should take note of the politics of criminal justice reform. In the US, reform has been led by conservatives, with an emphasis on community safety and fiscal responsibility. Even more importantly, reformers have been able to bring the public with them by pursuing reforms consistent with traditional moral principles like personal responsibility and just punishment.
The public, rightly, will not support any reforms that undermine their sense of right and wrong.
Criminal justice reform is therefore not simply about reducing incarceration. It is about reducing crime through cost-effective, data-driven punishment reform, thereby lowering costs while making the community safer.