The evidence is in: you can’t link imprisonment to crime rates

Rising imprisonment rates are the result of political responses to media and public agitation for tougher sentences. AAP/David Crosling

This article is one of several following up 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 the costs and consequences of imprisonment and the alternatives.


Prison populations in Australia are increasing rapidly. This is usually said to be driven by increases in crime. Digging deeper though, in Australia and internationally, the link is far less clear. The extent of a country’s use of imprisonment seems in fact to be more a matter of policy choice than of necessity.

Victoria’s prison system has experienced particularly striking overcrowding in the past two years. More people are being sentenced to prison. More people are being remanded in custody rather than being granted bail. At the same time more people are being refused parole and therefore serving their full sentence in prison.

Governments argue that crime rates are increasing, that communities are fearful and that more offenders must therefore be sent to prison. Some horrific high-profile crimes by people on parole have also led to the closing off of parole.

In fact, crime rates are not increasing in any uniform way. The latest figures for Victoria, where imprisonment rates have risen sharply, show increases in some offences (including some but not all violent offences) and decreases in some offences, while most remained stable.

The increased use of imprisonment was not simply a response to increased crime. And the time lag between offending and sentencing rules out the argument that recent increases in the prison population have – for example, by deterrence – led to any stabilisation of the crime rate.

So crime rates are not driving the increasing use of incarceration. This conclusion is borne out by looking outside Australia.

The global picture of crime and imprisonment

The use of imprisonment around the world varies enormously.

For instance, the US famously imprisons more of its population than almost any other country (698 prisoners per 100,000 population). Scandinavian countries use prisons at about one-tenth of that rate (e.g. Denmark 67/100,000, Sweden 57/100,000), with the UK at 144/100,000. The latest ABS data puts Australia’s imprisonment rate at 190/100,000 but rising fast.

At the same time we see that crime rates vary around the world – but not really in a way that correlates with imprisonment rates. For example, crime rates increased significantly throughout the developed world from about the 1970s to the 1990s. But, in that period, Michael Tonry shows imprisonment rates increased significantly in the USA and the Netherlands, remained stable in Canada and Norway, zigzagged in France and fell sharply in Finland and Japan.

In fact there is no obvious relationship between imprisonment rates and crime rates. Research by Tapio Lappi-Seppala shows, for example, that for some countries’ imprisonment rates move in line with crime rates (such as the USA, Denmark, Germany and Japan), while in other countries they move in opposite directions (such as in the UK, Italy, the Netherlands and New Zealand).

Looking just at Scandinavian countries, much can be learnt about the politics of imprisonment from Finland’s experience. In the 1960s the government decided to reduce the use of imprisonment to bring Finland more into line with the other Scandinavian countries.

Between 1960 and 1990 the Finnish imprisonment rate fell from 165/100,000 to 60/100,000. This was achieved by, for instance, reducing the offences for which imprisonment was an available sentence, shortening sentences, increasing early release schemes, introducing community service sentences and severely restricting the availability of prison terms for young offenders.

A Finnish commentator argues that this was possible because of the political will to change. This was itself made possible by a social and political consensus in a political system not driven by short electoral cycles and in which governments look for and accept expert independent advice on alternative forms of punishments.

But it was also achievable because at that time Finland had no tabloid press; crime was not a “hot button” issue used to sell newspapers.

While Finland was cutting its prison rates enormously compared to the rest of Scandinavia, the trends and rates of recorded crime were similar across all these countries. From 1950 to 2010 crime rates in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland rose uniformly and in parallel up to about 1990 and then levelled off or declined. Prison rates in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, however, were similar and stable, while the Finnish prison rates dropped dramatically.

If crime rates don’t explain it, what is happening?

Analyses by many commentators link the differential use of imprisonment to broader political frameworks and levels of social inequality. They point out that neoliberal countries – such as the USA and Australia – tend to have higher imprisonment rates, while social democracies such as Scandinavian countries have low imprisonment rates.

Related explanations focus on whether a country has inclusionary or exclusionary politics. It is argued that neoliberal societies have the highest prison rates because they have social and economic policies that lead to “exclusionary cultural attitudes” towards deviant fellow citizens. By contrast, European corporatist societies (“coordinated market economies”) and Scandinavian social democratic societies are said to:

see offenders as needing resocialisation, which is the responsibility of the community as a whole.

Links can also be made between a country’s welfare system and rates of imprisonment: reduced welfare correlates with increased imprisonment. The association between increasingly punitive policies and the winding back of the welfare state in the USA and the UK is often noted. The USA has the highest levels of income inequality of Western countries, the Scandinavian countries the lowest. Scandinavia also ranks highest on social expenditure within Europe.

Halden Prison is a maximum-security prison in Norway with a focus on rehabilitation that is reflected in its design. Wikimedia Commons/Norway Ministry of Justice, CC BY

Imprisonment is a political choice

The form of democracy may also be important to political and community attitudes to punishment. Some commentators (see here, here, here and here) make the comparison of confrontational two-party democracies, such as the USA and Australia, with more consensus-driven democracies such as Scandinavian countries.

Majoritarian two-party systems, it is argued, tend to give rise to adversarial and punitive law-and-order politics. By contrast, consensus-based models of decision making are said to prioritise compromise, making oppositional correctional politics unlikely.

Clearly, the extent of the use of imprisonment is a policy choice by governments. Looking around the world it is now widely recognised that there is no direct relationship between crime rates and imprisonment rates. There is a clearer connection between rates of imprisonment and levels of social inequality.

If crime rates don’t demand increased use of imprisonment, we must immediately reconsider our headlong rush to hyper-incarceration. If we were to learn from the international comparison, we would be investing much more in schools, families and communities, and much less in prisons.


You can read the other articles in the State of Imprisonment series here.

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