The Australian prison population has undergone a rapid and substantial increase in recent years. During the decade from 2006 to 2015, the number of prisoners across Australia increased by 40 percent, from 25,790 to 36,134. The increase has been particularly rapid in recent years, with a 24 percent increase in the five years from 2011 to 2015 (29,106 prisoners to 36,134), including a 17 percent increase in the last three years (from 30,775 to 36,134). While some increase in prison populations is to be expected due to overall population growth, it is notable that rates of imprisonment have also increased—by 19 percent in the last decade (from 165.1 to 195.8) per 100,000 persons), by 16 percent in the last five years (from 168.8 to 195.8) and by 14 percent in the last three years (from 172.2 to 195.8).
Increases in the prison population have particularly been seen among certain groups. In the decade from 2006 to 2015, the female imprisonment rate increased by 34.6 percent, compared with 18.8 percent for males. Over the same period, the Indigenous imprisonment rate increased by 35.6 percent alongside a 17.4 percent increase for non-Indigenous prisoners. There has been a particularly large increase over the last decade in the number of unsentenced prisoners, (77.4%, from 5,579 to 9,898), compared with sentenced prisoners (29.4%, from 20,212 to 26,163). There have also been differential degrees of increase between jurisdictions and across offence types.
Importantly, increases in imprisonment have occurred at the same time as marked and sustained decreases in crime rates, particularly for property crime. There has also been an ongoing decrease in some types of violent crime, particularly robbery.
Increasing prison populations come at a substantial cost. The net operating expenditure on Australian prisons in 2014-15, net of capital expenditure, was $3.7 billion. This was an increase of 7.6 percent on the previous year. Based on 2014-15 figures on the total cost per prisoner per day across Australia, each additional prisoner will increase expenditure by $300 per day. New South Wales has responded to increases in its prisoner population by allocating $3.8 billion over four years to expand its prison infrastructure.
The aims of this program are to:
- better understand the factors contributing to the growth in Australian prison populations
- help build understanding of how the growth in prison populations has impacted on those populations that have seen the largest growth, particularly women
- disseminate knowledge and build understanding of some of the ways corrections agencies can contribute to reducing rates of return to prison.