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Making prison work

By Andrew Leigh - posted Tuesday, 24 November 2009

It’s a set-piece of every Hollywood movie featuring an ex-con. A clean-shaven man walks out the prison gate carrying his possessions in a box under his arm, and puts his hand up to shade his eyes from the unfamiliar glare of the sun.

In 2009, more than 20,000 Australians got a “get out of jail” card, and walked through the gates of one of the 120 or so prisons dotted across the country. But the sobering fact is that during the next two years, nearly half of them will have been sent back. Some will get to play that prison release scene again and again.

Prisons do reduce crime, but mainly because of what criminologists call “the incapacitation effect” (when you’re doing time in Long Bay, it’s harder to hotwire a car). There may also be some deterrence effect, but this is small by comparison. And there is little evidence of a rehabilitation effect.


Why are prisons less a portal to a new life than a revolving door? Part of the problem lies in the fact that politicians and public servants have few incentives to create better rehabilitation programs. A policymaker who creates a cutting-edge program to improve inmates’ sense of self-worth risks being ridiculed by the shock jocks. A politician who advocates work release programs must worry about the tabloid headlines if some inmates abscond.

To encourage innovation, we should start publicly reporting the outcomes that matter most. Rather than merely telling the public how many people are held in each jail, governments should publish prison-level data on recidivism rates and employment rates.

Just as with schools and hospitals, “prison league tables” would need to take account of each institution’s caseload. Effectively, such comparisons should aim to answer the question: given the mix of inmates they handled, which prisons did the best job? Carefully constructed prison league tables should give taxpayers and policymakers a strong sense of where innovation is occurring in the system, and help smarten up the criminal justice debate. (A similar approach could also be taken in the case of community corrections programs, which handle about twice as many people as jails.)

As well as focusing on the important outcomes, Australian states should rethink the contracts they write with private providers. At present, about 16 per cent of inmates are held in a private jail. Unfortunately, the contracts for private jails bear a remarkable similarity to sheep agistment contracts. Providers are penalised if inmates harm themselves or others, and rewarded if they do the paperwork correctly. Yet the contracts say nothing about life after release. A private prison operator receives the same remuneration regardless of whether released inmates lead healthy and productive lives, or become serial killers.

A smarter way to run private jails would be to contract for the outcomes that matter most. For example, why not pay bonus payments for every prisoner who holds down a job after release, and does not reoffend? Given the right incentives, private prisons might be able to actually teach the public sector a few lessons on how to run a great rehabilitation program.

According to the Productivity Commission’s annual Report on Government Services, states and territories have formally agreed to “Provide program interventions to reduce the risk of re-offending”. Yet the reality is that less than one-third of prisoners are engaged in any formal education program, and that many of the jobs done by inmates do not provide the skills required by the regular labour market.


Given that each prisoner costs the taxpayer about the same as a five-star hotel room, reducing recidivism rates has a direct benefit for all of us. But criminal justice - and particularly juvenile justice - is also the pointy end of social policy. Ex-prisoners are disproportionately high users of other government services, such as counselling and income support. So improving corrective services helps in other social areas as well. This particularly affects Indigenous Australians, who comprise one-fortieth of the general population, but one-quarter of the prison population.

As a nation where a convict ancestor is a badge of pride, Australians know better than anyone that life can have a second act. The challenge today is to encourage our corrective services to correct, not just punish. Can we make jail work?

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on November 17, 2009.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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