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ACT prison has failed and it's only getting more expensive

By Kate Carnell, The Canberra Times, 30 March 2023

When the Alexander Maconochie Centre was opened in 2008, it was with a fundamental belief that this would be a different type of prison – one that would truly rehabilitate, address recidivism and help people get back to productive lives in the community.

We have not achieved that. As our system currently operates, jailing is failing.

It is failing to deter people from reoffending, failing to rehabilitate, and failing to make the community safer while costing an enormous amount of money.

A report released this week by the Justice Reform Initiative, of which I am a patron, shows that the bill for our prison and community correction services has more than doubled over the past decade, with ACT taxpayers paying the highest per prisoner amount in any jurisdiction.

Are we getting results for this investment? No.

While the number of people held at the Alexander Maconochie Centre has soared by 46% over the past decade, nearly 1 in 4 people released from prison in the ACT are back behind bars with a new sentence within two years. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the return to prison rate is almost 1 in 2.

The ACT has the highest rate of prior imprisonment in Australia, with 77% of our prisoners having been in prison before.

This rate is even higher for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our prison, with 92% having a history of prior imprisonment. The overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults is stark at 26% of the ACT’s prison population, despite making up only 2% of the general population.

Clearly we are failing to address the drivers of incarceration, with a result that leaves many trapped in the criminal justice system’s ‘revolving door’.

The evidence shows that prison entrenches disadvantage, rather than allowing people to turn their lives around. Many leave prison expecting to be homeless, jobless and facing significant health and relationship issues, all of which increase the risk of a return to prison. 

We need to be smart on crime, not ‘tough on crime’. There is a clear economic argument for reorienting our approach to criminal justice and moving away from a system based on punitive incarceration towards a greater investment in programs and services which are proven to work in preventing people from coming into the justice system and supporting them to escape from it.  

While there are valuable services operating in the ACT, we can do much more to give these the genuine backing that they need to make a difference, particularly in providing strong supports for people leaving prison.

Over the past decade, the cost for each prisoner in the ACT has increased by 51% to $190,769 per prisoner per year. Imagine what we could achieve if we invested that amount into evidence-based programs and supports in the community for each person at risk of incarceration.

We also need to look at what is being provided within the system: the latest ACT Inspector of Correctional Services’ review of the Alexander Maconochie Centre noted that prisoners had poor access to education, meaningful activity and healthcare, and extremely high rates of boredom.

Unless we take action to reorient our policy priorities and funding, we are unlikely to meaningfully reduce our prison numbers, reduce recidivism or improve community safety.

Investing in housing, accessible alcohol and other drug treatment, First-Nations led programs and mental health and disability support are more effective in tackling the issues behind crime and deliver better returns for taxpayers’ money than prison. While the government’s goal of reducing recidivism to 31.7% is good, we can and should aim higher.  

The ACT has done more than most Australian jurisdictions in showing its willingness to shift policy direction according to the evidence base, and we should be proud of our record in leading the country in areas like raising the age of criminal responsibility.

Now we need our policymakers to take the next step and adopt a smarter approach by reshaping our justice system to deliver a better return for all of us, investing in people, not prison.

Kate Carnell AO is Deputy Chair of BeyondBlue and former Chief Minister of the ACT and Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman. She is a patron of the Justice Reform Initiative.

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