The Prison Dilemma

Changing our approach to non-violent offenders could provide a win-win for all involved. But is it the right thing to do?

The Prison Dilemma
Photo by Hasan Almasi / Unsplash

Last week on my Friday night Sky News show, a young man raised what I considered to be a contentious point.

We were discussing the necessary reforms to the tax act to encourage more pensioners to pursue work without large financial penalties.

It's a compelling case, delivering better outcomes for all. The principle applies to aged and veteran pensioners alike.

However what he raised during that discussion was much more controversial.

He started to advocate for the release of currently incarcerated non-violent offenders as a further means of addressing our worker shortage.

According to Cian Hussey of the Institute of Public Affairs, 17,000 of the 43,000 prisoners in Australia fall into this category.

These are individuals who have committed crimes which should be punished but, in the main, are not a threat to public safety. Incarceration should be reserved for repeat offenders and those who are a genuine threat to public safety, such as murderers, rapists, violent burglars, paedophiles, terrorists and their supporters, and other violent offenders.

Hussey's plan would see this cohort of prisoners able to pay to leave prison and have their sentences commuted as long as they work.

This would plug around 3 percent in the current worker shortage and produce around $2.2 billion in annual economic benefit.

These figures are backed up by the Productivity Commission who note:

Approximately 80 percent of eligible Australian prisoners are employed while incarcerated, and recommend that such alternatives to prison should be considered for some low-risk offenders because they "can result in better long-term outcomes (for prisoners, the community and the state)."

Hussey also said that similar schemes have been done in Texas and Sri Lanka.

While the socialist basket case of Sri Lanka is probably a poor comparison, the Texan experiment appears to be working. It began in 2007 and has been copied by a number of other states in the USA.

I have to say that I like the economics behind this proposal but remain to be totally convinced by it.

Allowing people to buy their way out of prison sends a message that there is one rule for the wealthy and another for the poor.

Would it act as a perverse incentive for people to commit white-collar crime, knowing the horrors of prison could be avoided?

I also understand that prisons are often apprenticeships for greater criminal activity and often do little to reform poor behavior. Placing essentially good people behind bars can actually make things worse, and society has to pick up the cost.

Perhaps you can see why I thought this was a rather contentious issue.

However it is also a fascinating one, requiring balanced and objective thought about the human and economic benefits of taking a different path.

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