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Australia's emerging incarceration crisis: proposed reforms of the Australian sentencing system

Sentencing Prison sentences Law reform Criminal justice Australia

In recent years, prison rates have continued to increase, with an enormous amount of public money being spent on prisons and no improvement in community safety.

Over the past two decades the United States – known in criminology circles as the ‘mass incarcerator’ – has made significant progress in reducing the incarceration of low-risk, non-violent offenders. This has reduced the overall incarceration rate which delivers a dividend to taxpayers through less spending on prisons, some of which can be re-invested to strengthen the policing of violent and sexual offences to improve community safety. Additionally, reducing unnecessary rates of incarceration allows more Americans to be productive members of society, through working, paying taxes, and supporting their families and local communities.

The adage applied by reformers predominately from deep-red conservative states such as Georgia and Texas was ‘jail is for people we are afraid of, not those we are mad at.’ This recognises the unique nature of prison and that it should be reserved for people who are a threat to community safety. For those who are not a threat to safety, but who have nonetheless broken the law and ought to be punished, alternatives to prison should be pursued.

Australia, however, is lagging behind the world-leading reforms undertaken in the United States, and across many parts of Europe and Scandinavia over the past two decades.

The most pressing and important issue relating to sentencing law and practice is its continued disregard of expert knowledge and empirical evidence. Sentencing is the institution where there is the greatest gap between practice and knowledge. Most other social institutions and areas of learning, such as medicine, engineering and education, readily embrace and change their practices in response to new learning that demonstrates more efficient and effective ways of achieving desirable outcomes. By contrast, the key sentencing policies and practices which are responsible for the incarceration crisis have been implemented and maintained despite extensive research which demonstrates that the system is flawed.

This report examines the gulf between sentencing knowledge and practice, and makes recommendations regarding the measures that need to be undertaken to bridge that gap, so that law-makers can bring sentencing practice in line with current knowledge and make it fairer and more efficient. If the proposals in this report are adopted, the incarceration rate could be reduced by up to 30%, far less tax-payer dollars will be spent on prisons and the community will be safer.

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