State of imprisonment: Victoria is leading the nation backwards

In recent times, Victoria has reverted to the punitive approach that once filled the Old Melbourne Gaol, with little thought for the long-term consequences. Flickr/Eva, CC BY-ND

This article is part of The Conversation’s series, State of Imprisonment, which provides snapshots of imprisonment trends in each state and territory. The intention is to provide a basis for informed public discussion of imprisonment policies and of the costs and consequences for Australia of rising rates of incarceration.


Victoria was once the most progressive state when it came to imprisonment. The state was characterised by low imprisonment rates and innovative corrections policy. Victoria now leads the nation with the highest rate of growth in imprisonment.

The Victorian imprisonment rate increased by 40.5% between 2009 and 2014. The next highest growth, in South Australia, was 26%.

The impact on the state budget is huge. The real recurrent cost of prisons (in 2011-12 dollars) for every resident of Victoria has grown from A$56.47 per year in 2003/4 to A$83.95 in 2013/14. Taking into account inflation and population growth, this is a 49% increase.

Having more people in prison ultimately has negative impacts on community safety. The long-term intergenerational impacts are devastating.

In 2014, Victoria’s prisons held 6,112 people compared to 3,624 in 2004. This rapid growth is anticipated to continue, with the prison population projected to reach 7,169 by June 2015.

Capacity and costs are expanding

As Victoria’s new corrections minister, Wade Noonan has recognised that simply building more prisons is neither desirable nor sustainable. AAP/Julian Smith

The new Labor government’s minister for police and corrections, Wade Noonan, has recognised that this growth has resulted in a system “under enormous pressure”.

The response to this pressure under the previous Napthine government was to invest in prison capacity.

In the 2013-14 financial year, 938 new prison beds were opened. All existing prisons have expansion plans. In September 2014, the previous government signed a A$670 million contract for construction of a private medium-security men’s prison contracted for 1000 beds, but with a capacity of up to 1300. It is expected to be in operation by 2017.

This is a system that is expanding exponentially, with profound consequences for the community. What are the reasons for this increase?

What is driving up imprisonment rates?

The rapid growth in the imprisonment rate is not directly correlated with increased crime rates. The most recent Victoria Police crime statistics show that the 2013/2014 crime rate was 1.6% lower than 10 years ago. Hence, it isn’t crime but other policy and practice changes that are driving imprisonment trends.

The four critical changes have been:

  1. Sentencing: imprisonment terms have increased.

  2. Parole: changes to parole from September 2013 resulted in many parole applications being rejected and therefore longer terms of imprisonment. Plus evidence is emerging that increasingly stringent parole conditions and/or more severe punishments for breach of parole are resulting in many prisoners electing to serve their full sentence in prison instead of applying for parole.

  3. Bail: the Bail Amendment Act 2013 brought about significant changes, including more rigorous oversight of charged persons and the introduction of offences for contravening bail conditions or committing an indictable offence while on bail, each punishable by up to three months imprisonment, creating the potential for further charges and longer sentences.

  4. Suspended sentences: Victoria fully abolished the suspended sentence – a term of imprisonment that is fully or partially suspended for a specified period – in September 2014. The legal fraternity has criticised the abolition of this sentencing option as a “mistake” that will lead to “a more sustained increase in the prison population … in the crime rate [and possibly] … the rate of recidivism”.

Who feels the impacts?

Imprisonment affects the whole community. It is expensive and fails to increase community safety in the long run. The broader impacts are wide-reaching and long-term.

However, the data reveals that some key groups have been affected more significantly by the upward trend in imprisonment in Victoria. We highlight two.

Indigenous Australians

The rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander (ATSI) people in Victoria is 12.6 times higher than non-ATSI people. While ATSI Australians make up 0.7% of Victoria’s total population, they represent 7.7% of the prison population.

That proportion is not as high a level of over-representation as in other parts of Australia: for example, in New South Wales, Indigenous Australians comprise 24% of the total prisoner population, and in the Northern Territory it is 86%. However, it still reflects a disproportionate impact of prison expansion on Victoria’s Indigenous population. Indigenous imprisonment must be connected to the broader context of Indigenous disadvantage across health, employment and education.

Women

The imprisonment of women in Victoria has also grown disproportionally in the last decade, at a rate of 41%. A quarter of the women’s prison population in Victoria is un-sentenced, meaning they are on remand.

Women prisoners have been found to be 1.7 times more likely to have a mental illness than male prisoners. Non-Aboriginal women are significantly more likely than non-Aboriginal men to have attempted suicide.

It is well known that women are disproportionately affected by post-release homelessness and that the majority have dependent children. Imprisonment exacerbates multiple challenges – including mental health instability, inaccessible secure long-term accommodation and a limited likelihood of post-release employment – that significantly affect women and their children. Those problems often disrupt family reunions and the return of children to their mother’s custody. The result is that imprisonment can have devastating long-term impacts on women’s lives and the lives of their family members.

Where do we go from here?

Two important things have happened in Victoria.

The first is the change of government that occurred in November 2014. Labor, under Premier Daniel Andrews and Corrections Minister Noonan, has committed to investing in custodial and post-release prisoner support programs. But concerns remain about what, if any, concrete policies will be put in place to arrest the state’s fast-rising rate of imprisonment.

The second is the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation “into the provision of rehabilitation programs and transitional services for offenders in Victoria”. Following the call for submissions (29 were received) and a report is due to be published in late 2015.

These are positive signs. What remains critical is to ensure Victorians are onside with innovation and meaningful reform at the policy and program level. These must be targeted to specific areas and informed by research in order to reduce imprisonment numbers, whilst improving our overall safety and well-being as a population.


On Wednesday May 13, Monash Criminology is hosting a free public event, Beyond Imprisonment: innovation and reform opportunities for Victoria, which will build on issues raised in this article. Hosted by Maxine McKew, the forum will involve leading innovators in the area discussing what is possible for reform in Victoria. For more details and to register click here.

You can read other articles in the series here.

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