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Bigger jails cost more than money

OpEd by Greg Barns, The Mercury, 26 April 2021

In this election campaign there has been much focus on the disaster that is Tasmania’s inefficient, bureaucratic and political health system. But there should equally be a focus on another shambolic area of public policy, criminal justice.

In Tasmania the number of prisoners has risen 40 per cent since 2010 and almost six in 10 young people released from prison return there less than a year later. And taxpayers are getting poor value for money with the cost of housing each prisoner the highest in Australia at $122,143.60 a year, the highest outside of the ACT.

As the slogan goes, “Jailing is failing”. The slogan is that adopted by the Justice Reform Initiative (JRI) of which this columnist is a patron.

It is a bipartisan group of eminent Tasmanians who want to see better outcomes in our criminal justice system. Jailing more people, and increasing sentences, is a recipe for more of the same. Poor outcomes, reduced community safety, and squandering of scarce taxpayer resources.

The JRI includes former Legislative Council president Jim Wilkinson, former premier Lara Giddings, former Greens leader Christine Milne, Hobart Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds, eminent criminologist Professor Rob White, and Professor Terese Henning, who ran the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute.

Nationally, the JRI, the brainchild of former Aboriginal affairs minister Robert Tickner, includes former governors-general, returned judges, ex-prosecutors, and politicians from both sides of the aisle. The point is — criminal justice is too important to be a political plaything.

The JRI report, State of Incarceration: Tasmania’s broken criminal justice system, reflects incisive research by the JRI director, Dr Mindy Sitori. It deserves reading and our political leaders need to answer the questions and issues it raises.

In Tasmania the number of prisoners has risen 40 per cent since 2010 and almost six in 10 young people released from prison return there less than a year later.

Besides the grim figures noted above, the report notes that jailing Tasmanians is a poor investment. The cost of the prison system has risen every year in the past decade. And is that increase in expenditure resulting in greater rehabilitation? No. As the report observes, when it comes to employment and housing for those leaving prison, the record in Tasmania is disgraceful.

The report notes “homelessness services provided to those people who leave prison are extremely limited, with only 12 properties statewide supported for people exiting prison under the Rapid Rehousing program. With more than 750 people leaving prison per year, and 50 per cent of those leaving expecting to be homeless on release, there is a huge gap in this service.” And employment prospects for people leaving prison “are equally grim”. “Around four in every five people (79 per cent) entering Tasmania’s prisons are not recently employed, and only one in eight (13 per cent) of people leaving prison had paid employment organised to start after release.”

And why are we jailing so many disadvantaged people in the first place? As the JRI report notes, “67 per cent of people entering prison have had a mental health condition. 55 per cent of people entering prison had high, or very high levels of psychological distress. 25 per cent of people in prison had accessed a mental health nurse during their time in custody. 62 per cent of people in Tasmanian prisons report having some form of disability.”

Let’s leave aside the serious human rights concerns that emerge from the obsession our society has with jailing the marginalised and unwell. It is really poor economics to continue down the current path. And continue we will with proposals to introduce a new bail law which will see more prisoners on remand, with mandatory jail terms and lengthy terms proposed by the current government, sometimes backed by Labor. So what we are doing is throwing good money after bad.

The JRI report confirms what many on the conservative side of politics, particularly in the US, understand to be the case. That jailing people and running a system which simply warehouses individuals is very poor budget management on the part of government. The celebrated American jurist Richard Posner has made the point that jailing young people in particular leads to an increase in the shortage of labour and skills. In Tasmania, where there is an artificially boosted housing boom, and where agribusinesses cannot get labour, this makes no sense at all. And when it comes to individuals who are in their 70s and 80s, the cost to the prison system of housing them, and the rapid decline in their health, places more pressure on the budget.

This is not an issue of Left versus Right, or being “soft on crime”, it’s actually about getting optimal outcomes for taxpayers. In Tasmania we are failing dismally to do that, just as we are with the health system. The JRI report makes sense if you care about outcomes rather than believing the fairy tale that so-called “tough on crime” policies actually work. It is time to fix the broken system and leave prejudices behind. Smart justice works.

Hobart barrister Greg Barns SC is a former adviser to state and federal Liberal governments.



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