Skip navigation

Media Release: South Australia must fund alternatives to address soaring prison numbers – not more prison beds

Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 28 November 2023

A new report examining the over-reliance on incarceration in South Australia has highlighted an urgent need for the Malinauskas Government to fund proven alternatives to address the state’s soaring prison numbers, suggesting plans to build an oversized new prison would be an ineffective, costly, and harmful response to overcrowding.

The report, released today by the Justice Reform Initiative, reveals that although SA has taken positive steps to address the state’s failing prison system, the incarceration rate has swelled by 32% over the last decade – growing at the second fastest rate in Australia and at an enormous cost to taxpayers.

Locking up both adults and children is now collectively costing the state more than $374 million in annual net operating costs alone.

More than half of people in prison in South Australia have been there before and 45% are on remand, the highest proportion in Australia, while most people released from prison in the state are there for short periods of time.

Despite strong recognition that prison is failing to deter crime or reduce reoffending, the SA Government is undermining the progress of its 10by20 and 20by26 Strategies by continuing to disproportionately invest in incarceration, compounding the recent $180 million Yatala Labour Prison expansion with a costly business case for a new ‘rehabilitation’ prison to cater for the rising demand.

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 SA Government to abandon plans for a new prison and instead establish a $300 million Breaking the Cycle Fund over four years to boost and evaluate the community-led organisations and alternatives that are successfully breaking the cycle of incarceration and recidivism.

Executive Director Dr Mindy Sotiri said the evidence overwhelmingly showed adding new prison beds was a costly and ineffective response to both crime and rising prison numbers.  

This report clearly shows that prisons of any kind are harmful, fail to reduce crime or address the drivers behind it, and increase the likelihood of reoffending,” Dr Sotiri said.

“Crime prevention and support of people at risk of imprisonment, is best carried out in the community where the drivers of crime can be addressed – not in an enormous new prison which will further entrench cycles of reincarceration, ultimately failing to make the community safer.”

While shifts in corrections policy have achieved some positive outcomes, with the 10by20 strategy exceeding its target by 5% and resulting in recidivism rates among the lowest in Australia, there is still a trend in South Australia of increasing numbers of people unnecessarily incarcerated.

Dr Sotiri said there was an opportunity for South Australia to move away from an over-reliance on imprisonment through greater investment in genuine alternatives, such as early prevention, diversion, and specialist courts, and particularly in First Nations-led alternatives, that address disadvantage and provide pathways out of the justice system.  

“There has been clear commitment to reduce incarceration in South Australia and promote community safety, including acknowledgement of the importance of lowering the disproportionate over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody,” Dr Sotiri said.

“But there is much more to be done to address the significant gaps felt by thousands of people leaving prison each year who are not able to access critical community-led services or diversionary supports.

“Funds allocated to building new prison beds would be far better spent resourcing and expanding proven support services in the community, and across all points of the justice system, that we know work to reduce contact with the criminal justice system and break the cycle.”

The report highlights recent research and more than 70 examples of alternatives 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 focussing on alcohol and other drug treatment which have low recidivism rates of just 2%.

While the SA Government recently committed to a funding boost to reduce Aboriginal incarceration, the bulk of the funds ($945,000) was directed to the Department of Correctional Services to run programs in prison or under community supervision, while only $240,000 was allocated to Aboriginal-led community organisations.

Dr Sotiri said the SA Government needed to focus on expanding community-led and culturally appropriate options outside of prison that tackle the underlying drivers of offending, while also funding evaluations to mobilise a state-wide, best-practice approach.

“There is no single ‘reform fix’ to reduce prison numbers, however there are multiple proven, cost-effective reforms that can work together to build pathways away from the justice system and reduce the number of people cycling in and out of prison,” said Dr Sotiri. 

“This report shows there are dozens of community-led alternatives achieving remarkable results in breaking cycles of disadvantage, particularly First Nations-led organisations. But too many of these services are under-resourced and unable to meet demand, meaning only a fraction of people at risk of offending or reoffending can access them.

“Alternatives based in correctional settings currently receive the bulk of investment while community-led programs make do with a comparatively piecemeal approach to their funding, despite the strong evidence base for their work.

“South Australia has an opportunity to act on the evidence and adequately fund the services and supports that work to reduce the need for prison beds, rather than build more, and ultimately create safer communities.”


Among the report’s key findings:

  • In South Australia in 2021-22, the total net operating cost of adult prisons was $337.5 million with a further $36.98 million spent on children’s incarceration.
  • The real direct cost per adult prisoner per day is $224 or $82,278 per year. For children it is 3,145 per day, or $1,147,794 per year.
  • On an average night there are 3,049 adults in prison in South Australia, an increase of 47% over the last decade.
  • South Australia’s incarceration rate has increased by 32% over the last decade - the second fastest growth in rates in Australia.
  • More than half of people in prison in South Australia have been in prison before and 45% of adults in prisons are on remand, the highest proportion in Australia. The remand proportion has increased by 112% over the last decade.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are 16.1 times more likely to be in prison than the non-Aboriginal adult population and account for 24% of SA’s prison population.
  • Most people released from South Australian prisons are there for short periods of time. In 2021-2022, 3,402 adults were released from unsentenced detention in South Australia, having spent less than six months on remand.

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 South Australian patrons include:

  • Heather Agius, SA Female Elder of the Year in 2017, a Founder of Grannies Group, Visiting Inspector of prisons for the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM), Elder in the Magistrates Drug Court
  • The Honourable Reverend Dr Lynn Arnold AO, former Premier of South Australia
  • Dr Andrew Cannon AM FAAL, former Deputy Chief Magistrate of South Australia and now adjunct Professor at Adelaide and Flinders Universities and visiting Professor at Münster and Trier Universities (Germany) 
  • Helen Connolly, Inaugural South Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People
  • Professor Mark Halsey, Centre for Crime Policy and Research, Flinders University
  • The Honourable Robert Hill AC, former Federal Minister and former Australian Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
  • Frank Lampard OAM, former Acting Chief Executive of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Executive Director of the Aboriginal Prisoners and Offenders Support Services Incorporated, National NAIDOC Elder of the Year Award winner
  • Dr. Robyn Layton AO QC, former Supreme Court Judge, Adjunct Professor Justice & Society, University of South Australia
  • Isobel Redmond, Former Leader of the Opposition, Former Shadow Attorney-General, Former legal practitioner
  • Professor Rick Sarre, former Dean and Head of the School of Law University of South Australia
  • The Honourable Chris Sumner AM, South Australia’s longest serving Attorney-General
  • Sue Vardon AO, former senior public servant including inaugural CEO of Centrelink, CEO of SA Correctional Services and Chief Executive of the SA Department of Families and Communities. Sue has been National Telstra Businesswoman of the Year and a member of the Council of a number of universities including Flinders University and University of South Australia.
  • Penny Wright, former Senator for South Australia and former SA Guardian for Children and Young People and Training Centre Visitor


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.

Continue Reading

Read More