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section heading icon     punishment

This page considers punitive aspects of the Australian legal system.

It covers -

subsection heading icon     introduction

The Australian legal system aims to deter and punish offenders through imprisonment in correctional facilities and through penalties such as fines (ie the offender pays money to the state) or withdrawal of licenses.

Criminological fashion has meant that in recent years there has arguably been less lip-service to notions of reforming offenders through an enforced stay in government custody.

Despite populist agitation for "punishment that fits the crime" - particular resonant at election time - here has also been less noise about imprisonment as a mechanism for ostensibly ensuring the safety of the community by keeping some people off the streets or for using incarceration as a covert social welfare mechanism (ie dealing with the crime of poverty or homelessness by parking the poor in correctional facilities on an overnight or long-term basis).

subsection heading icon     corrections

Australian courts are able to sentence offenders to -

  • short or long-term stays in a correctional facility
  • community service and other forms of supervised work
  • home detention
  • good behaviour bonds under supervision (eg the offender must report to a police station on a daily or weekly basis)

Some imprisonment is on a part-time basis, with parents who have been found guilty of non-violent offences for example being released from custody at weekends.

Some people are held in custody prior to hearing or sentencing by a court, with unsentenced offenders often being held on remand in correctional facilities or released on bail (ie with some financial surety from themselves or a third party such as a parent).

The Australian states and mainland territories all operate prisons and other correctional facilities, typically independent of that jurisdiction's police force services. The national Government does not operate prisons or other corrective services, with federal offenders (ie people convicted of offences under Commonwealth law) being supervised by state/territory correctional agencies. The various governments usually maintain separate facilities for juvenile offenders.

As of mid-2006 there were 117 'custodial facilities' nationwide -

  • 84 government-operated prisons
  • 7 privately-operated prisons
  • 3 government-operated community custodial facilities
  • 9 periodic detention centres
  • 14 '24-hour' court-cell centres.

At that time there were 25,790 prisoners (sentenced and unsentenced), of which 93% were men and 7% were women. The unsentenced prisoners - 22% of the prisone population - included prisoners awaiting a court hearing or trial and convicted prisoners awaiting sentencing. In June 2008 there were 27,615 prisoners, an imprisonment rate of 169 prisoners per 100,000 adults

As in comparable economies, substantial recidivism was apparent, with 57% of the prisoners (unsentenced and sentenced) having previously spent time in an adult prison.

Incarceration reflected -

  • Homicide and related offences - 2,584
  • Acts intended to cause injury - 4,630
  • Sexual assault and related offences - 2,939
  • Robbery, extortion and related offences - 2,598
  • Unlawful entry with intent - 3,095
  • llicit drug offences - 2,516
  • Other offences - 7,428

Homicide and related offences were similar for both men (10% of the male prison population) and women (11%). Men were more likely to be in prison for robbery, extortion and sexual assault than women. Women were more likely to be in custody for deception and illicit drug offences. The average aggregate sentence length for prisoners sentenced to a specific term was 59 months, with remissions and parole for early release meaning that the average time actually served was 41.4 months. 5% of all sentenced prisoners were serving a life term or other indeterminate sentence.

Recent Australian sentencing policies have emphasised 'community based' correction strategies. In mid-2007 there were around 52,226 people in community-based corrections, with some 32,000 on sentenced probation, 10,280 on community service and 9,750 on parole. Nearly half of periodic detainees were sentenced for road traffic and motor vehicle regulatory offences and acts intended to cause injury.

The prison population is weighted towards the young, less educated and blue-collar (or no-collar) demographics. The median age of male and female prisoners was 33 years, with the majority aged 20 to 39 years. Prisoners aged 45 years and over were more likely to be in prison for sexual assault offences (51% for prisoners aged 55 and over and 22% for those aged 45-54).

As of mid-2006 there were 6,091 Indigenous prisoners (24% of the prison population), a rate of incarceration 13 times more than that of non-Indigenous people. The average sentence length of Indigenous prisoners was less than that non-Indigenous prisoners (3.7 years compared with 5.4 years).

subsection heading icon     studies


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version of December 2008
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics