It’s smarter to invest in diversion than in prisons

A review of the evidence shows that prison is costly, has negligible or negative effects on re-offending and, in the case of young people, may inflict long-term damage, thereby squandering the opportunity for rehabilitation and diversion that is presented with young people.[1]

 Prison is costly

The cost of new prison infrastructure and expansion of prisons to accommodate an increasing prison population within Victoria is in the hundreds of million of dollars. The 2013–2014 Victorian State Budget committed an extra $131.5 million on top of the $819 million prison funding announced last year to extending the prison system. Despite these budget commitments, it is predicted that Victoria’s prison system will still fall 1,400 beds short of the required capacity by 2016.[2]

Diversion early in the criminal justice process offers a less costly and more effective way of addressing youth offending, especially when compared to the cost of detention or further matters coming before the court. Community based diversion and support programs cost about one tenth of what detention of a young offender in a youth justice facility costs Government.[3]

 Prisons are pretty ineffective in preventing reoffending

Imprisonment in many cases is likely to have a negative impact on a young offenders offending trajectory. In Victoria, the most recent data shows re-offending rates of 57 per cent amongst juveniles sentenced to detention.[4] It is widely accepted incarceration foster further criminality.

Resourcing programs in the community that address the underlying causes of young people’s offending by promoting rehabilitation and reintegration are key to preventing their trajectory into the criminal justice system and reducing reoffending.  This is particularly the case given the well known indicators of disadvantage that are characteristic of young people entering the criminal justice system, such as mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness and poverty. There is significant cross-over between individuals with child protection backgrounds and those in the youth justice system. Statistics show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) young people are over-represented in Victorian detention at a ratio of 14:1.[5]

Various alternative sentencing measures such as non custodial sentences, diversion and youth justice conferencing have been evaluated and shown to have greater success than prison at keeping young people out of the justice system:

  • A study from NSW reported young offenders given non-custodial sentences had a 16% lower reoffending rate than those given custodial sentences. [6]
  • KPMG found that within 24 months only 19 per cent of group conference participants reoffended, compared to 43 per cent of young people placed on Probation or a Youth Supervision Order.
  • Rates of reoffending of young people participating in Victoria Police’s ROPES program are around 10 to 12 per cent.[7]
  • A local program in Victoria, Right Step, which deals with more complex cases than ROPES, has a 65 per cent success rate amongst participants.[8]

Prison damages life outcomes

Prison can significantly diminish the health, economic and social outcomes in a young person’s life whilst also increasing the risk factors associated with offending.

A number of studies on post-release outcomes have attempted to illustrate the damage to individuals of periods in detention. According to one UK study, those finding work post-release report the lowest rates of recidivism, bolstering the anecdotal link between unemployment and crime. However, the prospects for finding work are considerably lower for those with a criminal record, with approximately one-quarter finding employment after leaving prison.[9] YMCA Victoria estimates that 57 per cent of people with a criminal record cannot find work.[10]

Another United Kingdom study by an economics think tank estimated that the indirect costs of detaining a young person (including reduced chances of employment and increased likelihood of homelessness) added at least 40,000 Pounds to the total bill of a year-long prison sentence.[11] The total cost outweighed the savings to government and community of reduced offending by a ratio of 28:1.

 Justice reinvestment in diversion

There are considerable opportunities to implement a justice reinvestment scheme in Victoria and divert money away from adult prisons in Victoria. Justice reinvestment involves a portion of funds allocated to prisons being redirected to programs that tackle the underlying causes of crime in targeted communities (such as vulnerable young people), which over time will help lessen the prison population.

A recent government-commissioned review of the juvenile justice system in New South Wales recommended justice reinvestment as the most attractive policy option in terms of effectiveness and cost.[12]

It’s time for the Victorian Government to seriously explore such a scheme.

[1] Sentencing Advisory Council (SAC), Does Imprisonment Deter? A Review of the Evidence, (2011); Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), What makes juvenile offenders different from adult offenders? Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice (2011).

[2] VAGO (2012).

[3] Current cost estimates are approximately $528 per person per  day in youth detention, compared to $52-54 a day for community based alternatives. (Minister for Community Services Strengthening Youth Justice and Helping Young People Avoid a Life of Crime, media release, 3 May 2011).

[4] Department of Human Services (Victoria) (DHS), Recidivism Among Victorian Juvenile Justice Clients 1997-2001 (2001), p.18.

[5] AIC, Juveniles in Detention in Australia 1981-2008 (2010), p.33.

[6] DHS (2001), p.17. See Michael Cain, Recidivism of Juvenile Offenders in New South Wales (1996).

[7] KPMG, Evaluation Report on Victoria Police ROPES program (2010).

[8] Louise Clifton Evans, ‘Moorabbin police’s step in right direction’, Moorabbin Leader, 29 September 2011. Available at:

[9] Prison Reform Trust, Out for Good: Taking responsibility for resettlement (2012), p.54.

[10] YMCA Victoria, ‘Opening doors and hearts for real change: The Bridge Project’ (2011).

[11] New Economics Foundation, Punishing Costs (2010), p.5.

[12] Noetic Solutions, A Strategic Review of the New South Wales Juvenile Justice System (2010).