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Media Release: Jailing is failing: the ACT can be a national leader on justice

Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 27 March 2023

A new report has highlighted the urgent need for broader criminal justice reform in the Australian Capital Territory, showing that jailing is failing with more than three-quarters of people in the ACT’s prison having been imprisoned before. 

Released by the Justice Reform Initiative today, the report reveals that although the ACT has made some positive commitments to policy reforms, greater investment is needed in evidence-based programs and services that prevent people from coming into contact with the criminal justice system and reduce the risk of future incarceration. 

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 aim higher and lead the country in its approach to criminal justice. 

“The ACT has taken some important steps including committing to raise the age of criminal responsibility and committing to reduce recidivism but more needs to be done,” said Dr Mindy Sotiri, Executive Director of the Justice Reform Initiative. 

“The ACT has shown a willingness to engage and commit to evidence-based policy where other jurisdictions lag behind. We now need these policies to be put into action with funding and staff to make a difference. 

“Breaking the cycle of incarceration doesn’t happen overnight. It requires ongoing investment in effective, holistic, community-led and evidence-based support for people who have contact with the criminal justice system. 

The ACT has an opportunity to lead a national shift in the direction of Australia’s justice policies. We urge the ACT Government to take the next steps to build a justice system that makes the community safer, reduces reoffending, and provides genuine pathways out of prison.” 

The report highlights that: 

  • The ACT’s prison population has increased by 46% over the past decade. 
  • The ACT has the highest rate of prior imprisonment in Australia, with 77% of people in prison in the territory having been in prison before. This rate is even higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with 92% having a history of prior imprisonment. 
  • 41% of people in the ACT’s prison are unsentenced; this has increased 28% over the last decade. 
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up 26% of the ACT’s prison population, despite making up only 2% of the territory’s general population. 
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults living in the ACT are 21 times more likely to be in prison than the ACT’s non-Indigenous adult population. 
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in the ACT are 12 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous children living in the ACT. 
  • The cost of running the ACT’s prison and correctional services have more than doubled over the past decade, with each prisoner costing more than in any other jurisdiction. 

“We’re pleased that the ACT Government recognises the need to build communities, not new prisons, and has worked to elevate justice reinvestment, reduce recidivism, and to better support the community through improved programs and services outside of criminal justice settings,” Dr Sotiri said. 

“There is still work to do however, particularly to prevent the next generation from following the pathway from child protection to engaging with the youth and then adult criminal justice systems. Evidence shows investing in housing, accessible alcohol and other drug treatment, First-Nations led programs and mental health and disability support are more effective in improving community safety and delivering better returns for taxpayers’ money than prisons. 

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 members of the judiciary, 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 ACT 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 (currently on leave to undertake the role of Co-Chair of the Senior Advisory Group of the Indigenous Voice to Government). Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner. Senior Australian of the Year 2023. 
  • Kate Carnell AO. Former Chief Minister of the ACT. Deputy Chair, BeyondBlue. Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman. 
  • Simon Corbell. Former Deputy Chief Minister, Attorney-General, Minister for Police and Emergency Services of the ACT. 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. ACT Director of Public Prosecutions. 
  • Gary Humphries AO. Former Chief Minister of the ACT and senator representing the ACT in the Australian Parliament. 
  • Rudi Lammers APM. Former ACT Chief Police Officer. 
  • Dr Michael Moore AM PhD. Former independent Minister for Health and Community Care, ACT Legislative Assembly. Past President, World Federation of Public Health Associations. Distinguished Fellow, The George Institute, University of New South Wales. 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. 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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