Pirate Congress 2016/Motions/Policy and Platform/Prison Reform

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Draft Policy
This is a draft policy which may still be under development and is not approved or endorsed by the party.
Until such time as it is endorsed by the party, it does not represent the views or intentions of the party.


Reducing the net amount of crime in our country must be a primary long-term goal of our criminal justice system. Although many would argue that has always been the case, Australia's approach to achieving that goal has historically been based on the notion that fear of punishment will stop people from committing crimes. In practice, fear is a poor motivator. Fear cannot direct good behaviour — it can only compete with the other immediate threats in a criminal's life.

Except for the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, we know that most convicted criminals will eventually be released back into the community. Knowing that they might be your neighbour, would you like them to have experienced years of dehumanising and degrading treatment with limited to no possibility of self-improvement, or would you prefer your new neighbour to have been educated, to have acquired social skills, to be integrated with the community, to have gainful employment and to have a purpose in life?

The Pirate Party finds the latter is preferable.

The cost of crime in Australia

Crime costs Australia $36 billion per year, or about 4.1% of our gross domestic product.[1] The total net expenditure on corrective services alone was approximately $3 billion between 2007 and 2008 — $138 for every person in Australia.[2]

Prisoner information

A brief look at basic statistics on Australia's prison population provide an insight into the causes of recidivism — why prisoners are likely to reoffend and return to prison. One-third of all prison entrants have not completed Year 10, over two-thirds report that they have used illicit drugs in the last twelve months, just over a quarter had employment organised to begin within two weeks of release, and nearly half expect to be homeless.[3] Nearly half have been told by a health professional that they have a mental health disorder, and more than a quarter report being on medication for a mental health disorder.[4] The National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee reports that half of all children born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Australia as a result of alcoholic mothers will end up in prison.[5] These conditions are a recipe for recidivism, and experience bears this out — the Australian Institute of Criminology reports that about two-thirds of prisoners will have been previously imprisoned.[6]

Meaningless soundbites

Contemporary Australia is one of the safest places in the world, but public perception has been distorted by years of media sensationalism. The fear and paranoia created results in every politician needing to declare themselves to be "tough on crime" in order to get elected. "Tough on crime" is a meaningless soundbite, a slogan that represents short-term, shallow thinking about punishment rather than systematic strategies to steadily reduce crime over time and produce more productive and peaceful citizens. Politicians who appear to be spending taxpayers' money on convicted criminals are "exposed" for being too lenient to perpetrators and disrespectful to victims and their families, and run the risk of losing their next election. Despite numerous reports of Royal Commissions and Parliamentary Committees recommending against increased imprisonment, government policies never change.[7]

Do longer sentences reduce crime?

Longer sentences do deter crime — up to a point.[8] There is strong evidence that increasing the certainty of punishment deters crime,[9] but that increasing the length of sentences only deters crime where the initial sentence was short — criminals do value the future, just not as much as the average person.[10]

Is Australia already rehabilitating prisoners?

Legislation in Australia is inconsistent when it comes to the delivery of rehabilitative services at the state, territory and federal levels.[11] In the rare instances where a cohesive legislative commitment can be identified, the legislation is fragmented, with the focus varying between corrections, sentencing, parole programs or court administration. The Australian Institute of Criminology suggests that uniform legislation setting out a generally-accepted understanding of the purposes of rehabilitation and how best to achieve it may remedy this situation.

Does rehabilitation work?

The most effective forms of prisoner treatment are skill-oriented, based on a behavioural or cognitive-behaviour theoretical model and multi-modal.[12] Skills-based programs directed at improving cognitive and employment skills work far better in terms of prisoner rehabilitation than casework and individual or group counselling, and are associated with reduced problem behaviours.

Social impact bonds

The lack of political will to invest in effective rehabilitation strategies can be countered with 'social impact bonds'[13].

Social impact bonds are an arrangement under which a private business is assigned large randomised batches of prisoners prior to or after release and provides them with whatever reform and rehabilitation services they deem necessary to successfully reintegrate the newly released prisoners. Social impact bonds cover a diverse range of tailored services that are designed to reduce recidivism, and consequent government savings from reduced re-offending are used to pay for this service. If no improvement is made amongst their assigned batch of released prisoners, then the business receives no payment, but if recidivism is reduced and therefore the cost of law enforcement, corrective services and the crimes themselves are reduced as a result, some contractually agreed proportion of that saving is paid to the social impact bond service provider.

In the worst case scenario where no improvement is made, it costs the government nothing.

In the best case scenario, recidivism is reduced, tax paying citizens are created, considerable savings are made, the rates of crime drops, and former prisoners are successfully reintegrated into the workplace and society in general becomes a safer community.

Private prisons — a huge conflict of interest

Private corporations by definition, must strive to increase revenue and profits for their shareholders. Public/private enterprises can be good or bad, depending on how they are structured. The structured arrangement described under "Social Impact Bonds" above is an excellent example of a public/private contract structured in the interests of public good. However, a contractual structure where private corporations own and run prisons as a service to government will inevitably create a conflict of interest. The business will want to grow and therefore it will want to run more prisons and service more prisoners. This is the opposite of the most desirable outcome for the people of any nation — we want less crime, and a corresponding reduction in both prisons and prisoners.

Policy text

Provide options for alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders

  • Support alternative non-custodial sentencing options including weekend detention and home arrest with ankle monitors.
  • Optimise sentencing times based around solid research into the effectiveness of sentence times as a deterrent.
  • Increase the focus on community service as a form of repayment to society.

Improve incentives for prisoners to undergo rehabilitation and reform

  • Institute in-prison, skill oriented rehabilitation programmes, based on a cognitive-behaviour theoretical model.
  • Trial a programme in which low-risk prisoners can undertake paid employment, with part of their income being given to a victims of crime fund and the remainder being held for the prisoner until their release.
  • Allow prisoners' non-parole periods to be reduced by working, promotions and increasing skill levels where appropriate.

Trial social impact bonds

  • Run a social impact bond trial for prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration, including an independent academic evaluation of its effectiveness.

Reduce causes of offending and reoffending


  1. http://www.aic.gov.au/crime_community/communitycrime/costs.html Australian Institute of Criminology - Costs of crime
  2. http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/facts/1-20/2009/7%20criminal%20justice%20resources.html Australian Institute of Criminology - Criminal justice resources
  3. http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=60129543945 The Health of Australia's Prisoners, 2012
  4. http://www.aihw.gov.au/prisoner-health/mental-health/ Mental health of prison entrants
  5. http://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=38c1530e-1415-48cd-a788-46d0f7b59745&subId=252216 Addressing fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Australia
  6. http://www.aic.gov.au/media_library/publications/rpp/80/rpp080.pdf Australian Institute of Criminology "Recidivism in Australia findings and future research, by Jason Payne
  7. http://www.justiceaction.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=795&Itemid=1019 Justice Action Website - Failure of Imprisonment
  8. http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2016/03/criminal-justice?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/criminaljusticelongerjailsentencesdodetercrimebutonlyuptoapoint
  9. Steven N Durlauf and Daniel S Nagin, 'Imprisonment and Crime' (2011) 10(1) Criminology & Public Policy 13.
  10. Giovanni Mastrobuoni and David A Rivers, 'Criminal Discount Factors and Deterrence' (Working Paper, Royal Economic Society, 7 February 2016).
  11. http://www.aic.gov.au/media_library/publications/rpp/112/rpp112.pdf Prison-based correctional offender rehabilitation programs: The 2009 national picture in Australia
  12. http://acea.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Mckenzie-Doris-paper.pdf What Works in Correctional Education? by Doris Layton MacKenzie, Ph.D. The Pennsylvania State University"
  13. http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2011/RAND_TR1166.pdf Lessons learned from the planning and early implementation of the Social Impact Bond at HMP Peterborough

Further Reading not included in policy

Michael Moore on Norways prison system

Incarceration Within American and Nordic Prisons: Comparison of National and International Policies

Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior

Sweden's Remarkable Prison System Has Done What the U.S. Won't Even Consider

"The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world: It has only 5% of the world's population, but one-quarter of its prisoners." 
   - It would probably be best if we chose not to copy that.