Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 15 November 2022
A new report examining enormous growth in Queensland’s prison population has strengthened calls for the Palaszczuk government to abandon its plans for a new youth detention facility, with strong evidence that it would help drive further increases in incarceration while doing nothing to tackle the underlying drivers of offending.
The report released today by the Justice Reform Initiative – an alliance which includes former parliamentarians from all sides of politics, as well as some of the country’s most pre-eminent judicial figures, experts and Aboriginal leaders – reveals that the state’s adult prison population has surged 68% since 2011-12 – the highest growth in the country.
The report also shows that Queensland now imprisons the highest number of children Australia-wide, with the youth prison population increasing 27.3% over the past seven years.
According to the report, State of Incarceration: Insights into Imprisonment in Queensland, the rapid growth has not been driven by increased severity of offending or increases in crime but “by political, policy and legislative choices that end up funnelling many people unnecessarily into imprisonment”.
“We now have overwhelming evidence that building more prisons, as the Queensland government is planning to do with its proposed $500 million youth prison expansion, does not work to deter crime, rehabilitate, or make communities safer,” said Justice Reform Initiative Executive Director Dr Mindy Sotiri.
“This is a short-sighted and counterproductive policy that will make it more likely that vulnerable children will commit further offences and become trapped in the revolving prison door that has become a devastating feature of Queensland’s justice system.
“Youth detention disconnects children from their communities and takes them away from the supports and connections that they need to build good lives. It does nothing to address the underlying drivers of incarceration and underpins an increasingly costly and ineffectual system.”
The report, which follows the Queensland government’s recent announcement that it was planning to build another new youth detention centre, provides a snapshot of a system that is failing all Queenslanders – those who are impacted directly by the justice system and the taxpayers who foot the bill.
Instead of reducing the likelihood of reoffending, prison entrenches existing disadvantages and increases the likelihood of ongoing criminal justice system involvement, often over generations, the report warns. Among its key findings:
- The state’s rate of imprisonment is 236.6 people per 100,000 adults – significantly higher than the Australian average of 210. Comparable OECD countries such as Canada and Germany have imprisonment rates less than half the rate of Queensland.
- There are 9,476 people in Queensland’s adult prisons. More than two-thirds (68%) of those people have been in prison before.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are significantly overrepresented in Queensland’s criminal justice system. Although making up just 4.6% of Queensland’s population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 35% of the adult prison population and 62.6% of the youth and child prison population. The rate of incarceration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is 33 times the rate of non-Indigenous children.
- One-third of people entering prison in Queensland have experienced homelessness and almost three-quarters (74%) expect to be homeless or do not know where they will go when released.
- Both the number and proportion of children in detention in Queensland has increased since 2014-15. The number of children (10 to 17 years of age) in detention has increased from 172 to 219, and the rate of imprisonment has grown from 3.6 children per 10,000 of population to 4.0. Almost 9 in 10 of all children in detention are unsentenced.
- Other cohorts, including people with mental health conditions, people with disability and people experiencing multiple and complex disadvantages, are also imprisoned at a rate that is exceedingly high. One in three (35%) of adults entering prison reported living with disability and there is convincing evidence that a high proportion of children in the youth justice system have neurodevelopment impairments.
According to the report, the ‘revolving door’ model costs Queensland taxpayers $716.9 million a year in operating costs of prisons alone and this is set to grow further as the incarceration rate continues to climb.
An adult person in prison costs the taxpayer $207 per day, or $75,602 per year, while a young person in prison costs $1,880 per day, or $686,127 per year. With 266 young people in detention on average each day, the cost to Queenslanders is $183 million per year.
Dr Sotiri said taxpayers would be far better served by investment in early intervention, diversion, and evidence-based alternatives outside of the youth justice system.
“Over the past two decades, Queensland’s policy response to increasing numbers of people in prison has been to throw more money into the existing criminal justice model, with prison being the default response,” said Dr Sotiri. “This report signals that it’s time for a smarter approach that is based on the evidence of what works to stop people, particularly children, coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
“Queensland has an opportunity to increase investment in community-led support and services that work to prevent people at risk of entering the justice system and to increase diversionary options, both at the point of interaction with police and when an individual appears in court.
“It’s time to get smart and follow the evidence, not populist rhetoric, to help us build stronger, safer communities for all Queenslanders.”
The Justice Reform Initiative is honoured to have former Governors-General Sir William Deane AC KBE and Dame Quentin Bryce AD CVO as its two Patrons-in-Chief.
Our Queensland patrons include (in alphabetical order):
- The Honourable Mike Ahern AO. Former Premier of Queensland, businessman and founder of the Queensland Community Foundation.
- Sallyanne Atkinson AO. Former Lord Mayor of Brisbane, businesswoman and Trade Commissioner.
- Professor Kerry Carrington. Adjunct Professor, University of the Sunshine Coast.
- Mick Gooda. Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and former Royal Commissioner into the Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.
- Keith Hamburger AM. Former Director-General, Queensland Corrective Services Commission.
- Professor Emeritus Ross Homel, AO. Foundation Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University.
- Professor Elena Marchetti. Griffith Law School, Griffith University.
- The Honourable Margaret McMurdo AC. Former President Court of Appeal, Supreme Court of Queensland and Commissioner of the Victorian Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants.
- Dr Mark Rallings. Former Commissioner, Queensland Corrective Services.
- Greg Vickery AO. Former President, Queensland Law Society and former Chair of the Standing Commission of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
- The Honourable Deane Wells. Former Attorney General of Queensland.
- The Honourable Margaret White AO. Former Judge of the Queensland Supreme Court and Queensland Court of Appeal, former Royal Commissioner into the Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, and Adjunct Professor TC Berne School of Law UQ.
For more information and a copy of the report, visit https://www.justicereforminitiative.org.au/.
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.