The $64,000 question
As my colleague discussed in a recent column, we have to be careful that our desire to punish offenders and protect ourselves in the short term doesn’t lead us to prop up an unsustainable Corrections system that will cause more harm and victimisation in the long run.
Keeping a person locked up and away from society costs us around $250 per day in direct costs. With the average length of sentence being 509 days means we spend on average around $64,000 in direct costs alone per person per stay. All this speaks nothing of the costs being borne by the victims of crime, or the flow on effects being felt by the families of both the victims and criminals.
We spend on average around $64,000 in direct costs alone per person per stay
It’s time to acknowledge that every extra dollar we spend on “getting tough on crime” right now is a dollar we are not spending on preventing crime in the first place. While our Corrections system has a responsibility to keep us safe from violent criminals, the Government has a broader responsibility to take steps to alleviate the causes of criminal behaviour before people enter the prison gates.
A recent report from Sir Peter Gluckman highlights that “[e]arly intervention is key, and…cost effective. Early, positive engagement can stop intergenerational cycles of trauma, offending and prison involvement. The effects of abuse, neglect, and maltreatment on children’s development and behaviour can be successfully addressed at home, at school, in the community and in targeted mental health and other services, for a fraction of the cost of imprisonment.”
The Government has a broader responsibility to take steps to alleviate the causes of criminal behaviour
Why not take a proportion of the $64,000 that we would be spending on an adult stint in prison, and spend it on early intervention programs? If the person without intervention would have gone on to have three average stays in prison, we would save $192,000 in direct costs let alone all the indirect costs.
This was in essence the beauty of the last government’s Social Investment strategy. Let the back-room boffins connect the dots to work out those most at risk, and use that information to make smart, positive investments for that person, their family, and their community before they are in the position to make the key life choices that lead towards criminality. This government investment should occur in concert with the work already being done by community and non-profit groups that are closer to the situation and have better local insight. With wise oversight, the dangers of government overreach, concerns around privacy and the potential for unfairly ‘punitive’ targeting of programs in some at risk communities can be avoided.
We as a society have a belief that the opposite of getting tough on crime is to get soft on crime
Unfortunately it seems that we as a society have a belief that the opposite of getting tough on crime is to get soft on crime. As always there is a third way, the more difficult path. This would be to combine getting tough on crime, with getting even tougher on the causes of criminal behaviour. Invest in families early, focus on illiteracy, family violence and addiction by spending up large on rehab or programs that work. Of course there will be a fiscal bump in the short run while we do both, but why wouldn’t you try? It really is the $64,000 question.