CEDA Chief Economist Jarrod Ball explores the cost of recidivism to the Australian economy

This idea of re-thinking criminal justice appears to be catching on and may yet revive some of the reformist zeal in the federation. Some state governments are showing promising signs that they will take steps to reverse recent trends. Next month the Queensland Productivity Commission will deliver its final report to the government from its 12-month inquiry into imprisonment and recidivism, following a draft report that suggested 18 improvements to the current system. In Victoria, the Corrections Minister has signalled a review of the Corrections Act to address increasing imprisonment and recidivism. 

There is much more to be done, but the economic numbers alone suggest that the case for substantial reform is compelling across the federation.

from JARROD BALL, CHIEF ECONOMIST, cEDA: Australia pays the price for increasing rates of imprisonment

Today’s post is an briefing from Jarrod Ball from CEDA on the current economic costs of imprisonment in Australia:

The costs of imprisonment can be thought of in terms of the direct cost to government budget and the indirect costs to the economy.

Budget costs

  • The annual costs of prisons in Australia reached over $4.6 billion in 2017-18, equating to $302 per prisoner per day.
  • While it has received scant attention in the analysis of state budgets, there has been a significant increase in the operating costs of prisons in recent years as rates of imprisonment increase.
  • In the five years to 2017-18, the operating costs of prisons increased in real terms at an annual rate of 6.7 per cent. This is greater than the rates of growth in expenditure on General Practitioners (3.7 per cent) and early childhood education (5.1 per cent) over the same period.i This rate of growth is also significantly greater than expenditure growth in other parts of the justice system including police and courts.ii
  • If current trends continue, significant new investment will be required. The Queensland Productivity Commission estimates that in Queensland alone, $5.2 to $6.5 billion in new investment will be required for prison capacity to meet demand in 2025.iii
  • The growing budgetary costs resulting from increased imprisonment deserve greater scrutiny at a time when state and territory budgets are being squeezed by increasing demand for services like health, while tax bases come under pressure from subdued economic growth.
  • In this environment, it is increasingly important that state and territory governments are achieving better outcomes from their scarce resources. Despite increased rates of imprisonment and associated expenditure, reincarceration rates are high – at least half of all prisoners in 2017- 18 had been imprisoned as adults previously.iv Therefore increased imprisonment and the resulting expenditure has not produced better rehabilitation outcomes.

Indirect costs

  • While the indirect costs of imprisonment are less easily quantified, the lost potential for the economy is substantial.
  • In 2015, a survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that over a third of prisoners were in employment in the 30 days before imprisonment, with another third either seeking employment or studying.v Research undertaken in Victoria found that average lost productivity for each prisoner there was over $16,000.vi
  • The impacts on the economy from imprisonment extend further, with costs incurred through deteriorating physical and mental health of prisoners, and reduced welfare for their families including increasing resort to crisis and income support. The Queensland Productivity Commission has recently estimated that indirect costs for each prisoner in Queensland are at least $40,000 a year.vii


i Author’s calculations based on Productivity Commission, 2019, Report on Government Services 2019. Accessed from: https://www.pc.gov.au/research/ ongoing/report-on-government-services/2019

ii Ibid.

iii Queensland Productivity Commission, 2019, Inquiry into Imprisonment and Recidivism – Draft Report, p.ix.

iv ABS, 2018, Prisoners in Australia, 2018, Catalogue No. 4517.0, Accessed from: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4517.0

v Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2015. The health of Australia’s prisoners 2015. Cat. no. PHE 207. Canberra: AIHW.

vi A.Morgan, 2018, How much does prison really cost? Comparing the costs of imprisonment with community corrections, research report no. 5, Australia Institute of Criminology, Australian Government.

vii Queensland Productivity Commission, 2019, p.68.

Darwin conference update: Themes from our world cafe tour across Australia

Over 50 people attended the workshop in Darwin on 26 June

Last week, we got together at the Reintegration Puzzle Conference for a free workshop to talk about our recent world café style conversations around Australia. These were events in Perth, Brisbane Geelong, Sydney and Melbourne earlier in the year where we worked together to develop solutions to reduce the imprisonment rate and the rate at which people return to prison in Australia.

At the workshop, we had a group discussion of the major themes associated with each of the two questions that have been posed at the events. These questions focused on changes that are needed both inside and outside prison to enable people to have better outcomes when they return to community.

While we are still in the process of reviewing all of our notes from all of our events, we presented our draft themes for the workshop. In the presentation, we noted that in formulating these preliminary themes, there was some variation in the emphasis placed on various themes across event locations and a large number of sub-themes associated with each of the major themes.

Naomi Murphy from Woor-Dungin speaking at the workshop

Here are the draft themes:

How could prison function better toward release?

  • Reform Prison Culture and Service Provision
  • Facilitate Service Linkage and Throughcare
  • Employ a Trauma-based Approach to Therapeutic Care
  • Engage in Stigma Reduction

What conditions are needed in the community for support?

  • Facilitate Knowledge and Skills
  • De-stigmatisation and Inclusion
  • Throughcare Training and Services
  • Advocacy and Leadership
  • Acknowledge Complex Disadvantage
  • Funding

Next steps

Next up is completing the review, publishing our findings and advocating for those changes through our newly formed After Prison Network.

You can support us by:

  • following the Network on this website so that you stay connected with us and are partners with us in change.
  • sharing this blog and website with your networks and on social media.
  • consider becoming a state or territory contact for our network.
Website and Network launch at the workshop

Welcome to our network and website

Every year at our annual conference, a group of people end up at the conference bar imagining how good it would be if there was a national network that links up everyone for the rest of the year. A small group of people have been working on this for the past 3 years, but to make it work, we need your support now.

— Joe graffam

Founder of the Reintegration Puzzle Conference and lead author of our report Repurposing prison, Resourcing communities