Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 1 March 2023
A new report examining the over-reliance on incarceration in Western Australia has highlighted the urgent need for the McGowan Government to invest in proven alternatives, with strong evidence to suggest costly prison expansions will only increase the number of people in prison without curbing crime rates or addressing the drivers of incarceration.
The report released today by the Justice Reform Initiative – an alliance which includes former parliamentarians from all sides of politics, as well as pre-eminent judicial figures, experts and Aboriginal leaders – reveals the state’s prison population swelled by 29% from 2012 with the cost of incarceration rising dramatically also.
WA spends more than $800 million each year locking up adults and children, and has committed more than $300 million to increase the number of prison beds in 2023.
The Justice Reform Initiative is calling on the WA Government to establish a Breaking the Cycle Fund to support evidence-based, community-led programs that will break the cycle of incarceration and recidivism.
Executive Director of the Justice Reform Initiative, Dr Mindy Sotiri said that there is overwhelming evidence that the current prison system (for both adults and children) is harmful, expensive, and ineffective.
“The report shows very clearly that imprisonment does not work to reduce crime, does not work to rehabilitate, and does not work to make the community safer,” she said.
Dr Sotiri said that rather than investing in prisons, taxpayers would be far better served by investment in early prevention, diversion, and evidence-based alternatives outside of the justice system.
“Western Australia’s policy response to increasing numbers of people in prison has been to throw more money into the existing criminal justice model, even though all the evidence tells us this model isn’t working,” said Dr Sotiri.
“This report outlines an option for a smarter approach that is based on the evidence about what works. Western Australia has an opportunity to increase investment in community-led supports and services that prevent people from coming into contact with the justice system, and to invest in real diversionary options, both at the point of interaction with police and when an individual appears in court.”
The report highlights recent research into alternatives including:
- Early intervention and prevention programs which are halving offending rates amongst at risk populations;
- First Nations place based programs that have seen significant reductions in crime and increased health and well-being;
- Bail support programs that both reduce offending and increase engagement with supports and programs;
- Post release and diversionary community-led programs that have found dramatic decreases in re-offending and recidivism; and
- Alternative sentencing processes that reduce reoffending and deliver better outcomes for victims.
Dr Sotiri said it was critical that the McGowan government expands alternatives and community-led options to tackle the underlying drivers of offending throughout Western Australia, including in remote and regional parts of the state where such options are often inaccessible.
“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,” said Dr Sotiri.
“It is clear that jailing is failing – alternative approaches should be available to a much larger cohort of people who come into contact with the justice system.
“Community-led justice programs in Western Australia, including First Nations led supports, are achieving strong outcomes, basing their approaches on evidence-led practice and models of success elsewhere. But too many services and programs are under-resourced, unable to meet demand, and often at risk of losing funding.
“It’s time to get smart and follow the evidence, adequately fund the services and supports that work to reduce criminal justice contact, and build stronger, safer communities for all West Australians.”
Among the report’s findings:
- In 2021 Western Australia had the second highest incarceration rate in Australia at 325 people per 100,000 adults – significantly higher than the national average of 214 per 100,000 adults.
- Western Australia has the highest incarceration rate nationally for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
- Almost two-thirds of people in prison in Western Australia have been in prison before – and this trend is rising.
- The proportion of people imprisoned on remand in WA has grown from 18% of the total prison population in 2011 to 30.6% of people in 2021.
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 Western Australian Patrons include:
- The Honourable Fred Chaney AO, former Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Minister for Social Security and Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party and former Deputy President National Native Title Tribunal and Co-Chair Reconciliation Australia
- The Honourable Peter Dowding SC, former Premier of Western Australia
- Professor Pat Dudgeon AM, PhD BAappSc. GDip (Psych) FAPS, Director of the UWA Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention, Lead CI on a NHMRC Million Minds Mission Grant Transforming Indigenous Mental Health and Wellbeing, and fellow in the Australian Psychological Society
- Dennis Eggington, CEO Aboriginal Legal Service Adjunct Professor Curtin University
- Her Honour Antoinette Kennedy AO, former Chief Judge of the District Court of Western Australia
- Greg McIntyre SC, Executive Board Member, Law Council of Australia and past president Law Society of Western Australia
- The Honourable Wayne Martin AC KC, former Chief Justice of Western Australia
- Her Honour Kate O’Brien, former District Court Judge and President of the Children’s Court
- The Honourable Denis Reynolds CitWA, former President of the Children's Court of Western Australia and Senior Judge of the District Court of Western Australia
- Professor Fiona Stanley AC, former Australian of the Year
- The Honourable Ian Viner AO KC, former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Industrial Relations and Leader of the Government in the House of Representatives, former President of the WA and Australian Bar Associations and Deputy Chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation
- Ted Wilkes AO, former Director of the Derbarl Yerrigan Aboriginal Health Service in Perth and former Associate Professor and Co-team Leader of the Aboriginal Australian Research Program at Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute
- The Honourable Mary Ann Yeats AM, former President of the Children’s Court of Western Australia and former Judge of the District Court of Western Australia
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.