Low-risk and non-violent prisoners would be able to avoid jail terms in return for working 40 hours a week in paid employment and filling some of the 400,000 job vacancies across Australia under a proposal that would also deliver major savings to governments.
The right-leaning Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) says prisoners should be given the option to ditch time behind bars for time behind a counter or cash register in a move it reckons could save taxpayers about $2 billion a year through reduced incarceration costs and extra income tax revenue.
Having low-risk prisoners hold down jobs instead of being jailed would save about $2 billion, the IPA says.Credit:
Australian businesses have struggled due to a record shortage of workers over the past 12 months. The number of job vacancies is at an all-time high.
The nation’s prisons hold more than 41,000 people, an increase of 37 per cent since 2012-13, while the cost of holding them has grown by 4.2 per cent a year between 2011-12 and 2019-20. Australia’s imprisonment rate is among the highest in the OECD.
Report authors Mirko Bagaric, the dean of Swinburne University of Technology’s law school and Morgan Begg, the IPA’s director of research, said there were about 14,000 young and healthy adults in the prison population who were doing time for non-violent, non-sexual offences that would be better off in the workforce.
This group of people could be used to fill job vacancies in the economy, giving them a source of income while increasing the chance of their rehabilitation and saving taxpayers $1.95 billion a year.
There are about 14,000 young and healthy adults in the prison population doing time for non-violent, non-sexual offences.Credit:Justin McManus
“Diverting low-risk, non-violent offenders from prison and giving them the opportunity to work would enhance their lives and prospects, promote community safety, improve the economy through increased productivity and reduce net government spending and debt,” they said.
“If Australian governments reformed sentencing so that non-violent, low-risk offenders were not detained at taxpayers’ expense, but rather were put to work in industries which urgently need workers, this could deliver substantial benefits to taxpayers without compromising community safety.”
Nationally, there are more than 444,000 job vacancies, slightly down on the 466,000 recorded in the middle of last year.
But there are a record number of businesses looking for staff. At the end of last year, almost 28 per cent of businesses had vacancies. Before the COVID pandemic, just 11 per cent of businesses were looking for more staff.
More than a third of businesses in the Northern Territory have vacancies, the highest rate in the nation, with the second-highest in Western Australia at 29.4 per cent and Victoria next at 29.2 per cent.
Under the think tank’s proposal, prisoners and potential employers would voluntarily take part in the program.
It found that while most prisoners are not tertiary educated, there was a huge shortage of workers in areas that do not require formal education such as hospitality and retail.
Participants would work 40 hours a week for between six months and three years, in either the private or public sector. They would receive the award payment for their employment.
“Work-focused community service orders should apply to all non-violent and non-sexual offenders who are prepared to work full time, and it should be a condition of the sanction that they perform satisfactorily in their job,” Bagaric and Begg said.
Recent research by the Productivity Commission confirmed the high level of recidivism in the Australian prison population. It found 45 per cent of people released from prison were re-incarcerated within two years.
It noted about 62 per cent of people released from prison found they had no paid work lined up within two weeks of leaving jail. More than a third did not have a Medicare card upon release while 44 per cent expected to stay in emergency or short-term accommodation.
The cost to state and territory governments of running the nation’s prisons is also climbing, reaching $5.2 billion in 2019 or 1.6 per cent of total government expenditure.
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