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Media Release: ACT can lead Australia with a deeper commitment to a smarter justice system

Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 28 February 2024

A new report examining alternatives to imprisonment as the mainstay of the criminal justice system has found the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has the potential to lead the nation with a smarter approach, but greater investment is needed to overcome the legacy of over-incarceration.

The report, released today by the Justice Reform Initiative, shows that despite having the lowest incarceration rates in Australia and a promising reform agenda, the ACT’s current approach faces challenges in effectively breaking the cycle of incarceration.

The ACT has the highest rate of people returning to prison in Australia, with 80% of all people in prison in the Territory having been in prison before. Additionally, while First Nations people make up only approximately 2% of the ACT population, they make up over one-quarter (27%) of those incarcerated.

Recognising prisons’ failure to deter crime or reduce reoffending, the ACT Government has created the ‘Building Communities not Prisons’ plan. The Plan aims to reduce recidivism by 25% by 2025 through investments into evidence-based alternatives to prisons.

The Justice Reform Initiative – an alliance which includes former parliamentarians from all sides of politics, as well as respected Aboriginal leaders, judicial figures, and community experts – is calling on the ACT Government to further its current efforts by establishing a Breaking the Cycle Fund. The proposed Fund of $20 million per annum will help boost the impact of existing community-led programs and make them more accessible, reducing the churn of people into prisons.

Executive Director Dr Mindy Sotiri said the report highlighted the failures of policy overreliance on incarceration and the need for a multipartisan commitment to evidence-backed alternatives to prison.

“Despite the ACT’s recent shift away from incarceration, the Territory continues to feel the ongoing impacts of outdated approaches to justice,” she said.

“The ACT has made a commendable step forward with its commitment to invest in communities, not prisons. However, many of these programs are frequently under-resourced and this is especially true for First Nations-led organisations.”

Dr Sotiri said there was an opportunity for the ACT to lead Australia in justice reform through greater investment in genuine alternatives, such as early prevention, diversion, First Nations-led programs, and specialist courts that address disadvantage and provide pathways out of the justice system.

“With a smaller population and the lowest incarceration rates in the country, the ACT can lead the way on criminal justice reform in Australia. We’ve seen what’s possible in jurisdictions that take a smarter approach, such as in Scandinavian countries, and there’s no reason why we can’t do better in Australia to reduce the number of people going into prison and improve community safety.”

The report highlights recent research and more than 100 examples of successful alternatives to prison including:

  • Early intervention and prevention programs that reduce crime at a population level by between 5% and 31% and reduce offending among at-risk populations by 50%.
  • First Nations place-based approaches which have seen significant reductions in crime, criminal justice system and youth justice contact and significant cost-savings.
  • Bail support programs which slash reoffending (33%) and increase compliance with bail conditions (95%).
  • Post release and diversionary community-led programs that show dramatic decreases in recidivism; such as support programs focusing on drug and alcohol dependency which reduced days in custody (65.8%), new custody episodes (62.6%), and proven offences (62.1%) within two years.
  • Alternative policing and alternative first responder models that lessen the likelihood of arrest by 58%.
  • Alternative and specialist court processes that reduce contact with the justice system.
  • Alternative detention models such as rehabilitation and therapeutic models focusing on alcohol and other drug treatment which have low recidivism rates of just 2%.

Dr Sotiri said the ACT Government should be recognised for its innovations in criminal justice which provide strong foundations for reform, but noted the limitations to date in terms of implementation.

“In the report, we outline 30 different alternative justice programs and organisations in the ACT. This is no small feat, especially given the territory’s size and population.

“Unfortunately, these programs are currently operating on a scale that is too small to make a systemic difference when it comes to reducing recidivism and criminal justice system contact in the ACT. Piecemeal resourcing and service silos are preventing existing best-practice approaches from having a wide impact and reach.

“If we genuinely want to build a safer, more cohesive community, we need to invest more in community-led programs that address the drivers of crime and incarceration. There is a real opportunity for the ACT to be at the forefront of this change.”

Among the report’s key findings:

  • In the ACT, the real direct cost of detaining an adult in prison is $543.19 per day. It is estimated that the total annual net operating cost of detaining adults on remand in the ACT exceeds $34.4 million.
  • In 2023, there were, on average, 375 adults imprisoned in the ACT each night.
  • 80% of all people in prison in the ACT have been to prison before.
  • In 2023, 46% of adults in the ACT’s prison were unsentenced, up from 26% a decade ago.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people are 14 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous children.
  • In 2022-23, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (between the ages of 10 and 17) made up 26% of the youth prison population.



About the Justice Reform Initiative

The Justice Reform Initiative is a multi-partisan alliance supported by more than 120 of our most eminent Australians, including two former Governors-General, former Members of Parliament from all sides of politics, academics, respected Aboriginal leaders, senior former judges, including High Court judges, and others who have added their voices to end Australia’s dangerously high reliance on jails.

The Initiative is calling for governments around Australia to move away from an entrenched reliance on incarceration as the mainstay of the criminal justice system and adopt an evidence-based approach to deliver better results for taxpayers, communities and people in the criminal justice system.

Our Australian Capital Territory Patrons include:

  • Professor Lorana Bartels. Professor of Criminology, Australian National University. Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra, and University of Tasmania.
  • Professor Tom Calma AO. Chancellor, University of Canberra. Co-Chair, Reconciliation Australia. Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner. 2023 Senior Australian of the Year.
  • Kate Carnell AO. Former ACT Chief Minister. Deputy Chair, BeyondBlue. Former Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.
  • Simon Corbell. Former ACT Deputy Chief Minister, Attorney-General, Minister for Police and Emergency Services. Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra.
  • Dr Ken Crispin KC. Former ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, Justice of the ACT Supreme Court, and President of the ACT Court of Appeal.
  • Shane Drumgold SC. Former ACT Director of Public Prosecutions.
  • Karen Fryar AM. President of ACT Legal Aid Commission. Former ACT Magistrate, ACT Children’s Court Magistrate and Coroner of the ACT.
  • Gary Humphries AO. Former ACT Chief Minister and Attorney-General, and Senator representing the ACT in the Australian Parliament.
  • Rudi Lammers APM. Former ACT Chief Police Officer.
  • Dr Michael Levy AM. Public health physician with 24 years experience as a clinician for adults and youth detainees in NSW and the ACT.
  • Michael Moore AM PhD. Former independent ACT Minister for Health and Community Care. Past President, World Federation of Public Health Associations. Distinguished Fellow, The George Institute, University of NSW. Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra.
  • The Honourable Richard Refshauge. Acting Justice of the ACT Supreme Court. Former ACT Director of Public Prosecutions.
  • Dr Helen Watchirs OAM. Former President, ACT Human Rights Commission

For more information and a copy of the report, visit

Media contact: Pia Akerman 0412 346 746

The Initiative respectfully acknowledges and supports the current and longstanding efforts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reduce the numbers of Indigenous people incarcerated in Australia and, importantly, the leadership role which Indigenous-led organisations continue to play on this issue. We also acknowledge the work of many other individuals and organisations seeking change, such as those focused on the rate of imprisonment for women, people with mental health issues, people with disability and others.

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