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Crime and Punishment 3 - Keeping People out of Gaol


This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC


Let me say at the outset, I do think people convicted of violent crimes should be kept away from the public, at least until such time as their problems have been resolved to the point that they no longer pose a risk to society. In the USA, for which we have up -to -date and detailed figures, this accounts for around one quarter of the prison population of 2,200,000 including those on pretrial in 2022, though I suspect armed robberies and homicides would be lower in countries with stricter gun controls. This leaves a large number of people who would be better off - and society would be better off, if they were kept out of prison. As the number of prisoners increases globally -10.35 million at last count and the cost of keeping them in prison increases disproportionately, we do need to think of better ways of dealing with most other offences. Keeping people in prison is not only hugely expensive and compounds any existing problems which prisoners may have such as mental health and substance abuse, but also increases the likelihood that they will re -offend.

When Poverty is the Crime

 In my humble opinion the number of people in prison is a direct reflection on how broken a society is. Societies with good education, healthcare and social support such as Norway (56% per 100,000 of population) and Finland (50%), The Netherlands (60%) Germany (70%) have much smaller prison populations and thus have more to spend on rehabilitation, post prison support, housing or helping those with addictions and mental health problems. Unemployment, homelessness or inability to pay the rent or medical bills will lead directly to the commission of crimes. In longitudinal studies – somewhat dated now,  rates of recidivism were far lower among those who were able to find well paid work on release from prison. 


Two US studies quoted by O’Neill Hayes and Barnhorst in their 2018 report, show that inequality is a greater predictor of crime rates than simply having a low income or living in a low-income area.

Poverty also impacts crime rates in other ways. O’Neill Hayes and Barnhorst’s report* shows that 550,000 people are being held in pre -trial detention because they are unable to afford bail or pay for legal defence thus accounting for the apparent slight drop in numbers of prisoners is due to the pandemic which left a backlog of cases which have not been heard. They also state that poor people are also more likely to plead guilty to charges of which they may or may not be guilty and that sentences for the same crime are often higher for those with incomes below $10,000 per year than for those on higher incomes or with more education. 


Wage Non Violence raises money for bail funds in the US so poor people do not need to await sentencing in gaol. They are also working to end cash bail altogether. This could be important for Australia too as many people, especially women often find themselves disproportionately among those held in gaol pending trial.

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Similar trends are apparent in Australia too. Rates of imprisonment have increased by 5% according to the 2021 census, raising the rate to between 205 – 214* per hundred thousand people putting us far behind other OECD countries such as Canada with 104% or Japan with 37%. Rising crime rates are hardly surprising given that wages have failed  to keep pace with cost-of-living increases for many years, especially with respect to housing and work has become increasingly casualised and insecure. This is not well captured in unemployment statistics as you are counted as being employed if you work as little as one hour per week and those who have given up aren't counted at all. Income support for the unemployed and others such as the elderly and disabled remains well below the poverty line.

As in the USA the number of people awaiting sentencing has also increased and stood at 15.9% of the prison population in 2019. While this increase may also be partly due to pandemic -related delays, there has also been a change in the law in Victoria which allows fewer people to be out on bail. 

  *These figures differ slightly to the world population review  data because they are taken from the latest census data (June 2021).   


The above-mentioned report by O’Neill Hayes and Barnhorst (2018), estimates that some 50,000 people in the USA are in prison for failing to pay child support or fines. In some 43 states, defendants are obliged to pay for court appointed lawyers too, even when found not guilty. Additionally some 46 states charge for “room and board’ for time in prison, even though it is technically unconstitutional to goal people for an inability to pay. Where people are wilfully withholding funds, a garnishee on wages or bank accounts seems like a less costly all around than than invoking the entire apparatus of the legal system, especially when a prison sentence will damage future earning potential and will not help families in any way. It's even worse when inability to pay is involved. Better all around to find debtors some kind of gainful employment from which restitution could come. Given the deterioration of physical and mental health which can take place in prison also makes future employment even more difficult.

In 1987, New South Wales Police were forced to reconsider their policy of gaoling offenders for non -payment of fines after a young man imprisoned for four days for failing to pay parking fines, was beaten by another prisoner and ended up in a coma for six months. They now rely far more on things like Community Service orders, or other sanctions such as seizure of property - other than the family home or tools needed to earn a living, or in the case of driving offences, withdrawal of a person's drivers' licence or car registration. Unfortunately both of the latter could be counter -productive if a person needs their car to get to work or that forces them to drive without registration since few places in Australia are well endowed with public transport. without registration they wouldn't have compulsory accident insurance either meaning that if someone is injured or killed while driving, they or their families could no longer sue the driver.

Mental Health

Unfortunately, more and more it falls to police to deal with people who exhibit bizarre behaviour or act as if they may self -harm. Upon closure of  major mental health facilities in Australia, communities were promised a range of community support centres which have either failed to materialise or been underfunded. According to the World Health Organisation, mental health problems are far higher in prison than in the general population. For example, the suicide rate is ten times higher, and prison itself contributes to higher rates through “Overcrowding, various forms of violence, enforced solitude, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activity, isolation from social networks, insecurity about future prospects -work, relationships, combined with inadequate services, all increase the likelihood of deterioration in mental of prisoners. The failure to adequately recognise that inmates may be suffering from  mental health problems – which may range from psychosis, depression, to PTSD or ADHD prevents appropriate treatment, increases the risk of suicide and also increases the chance of re -offending. Inmates with mental health problems are also more subject to bullying, violence and intimidation 

 A 2017 report showed that of 35 people shot by NSW police, over half had a mental health problem. highlighting the need for more money to be spent on adequate training for first -responders, adequate screening and appropriate treatment, not more incarceration.

Not everyone with a mental health issue is a danger to the public. I am thinking here of Tasmania’s “Dancing Man,” Anthony Day, a 35-year-old Queensland- born poet who chose to dance in Hobart’s city mall. Having once been arrested by police in Tasmania, he moved to Melbourne for a fresh start. Unfortunately he was also arrested there and took his own life while in custody. Indeed Australia’s suicide statistics – between 2 and 3,00O per year, mostly men, tell of a large number of people in pain whose needs aren’t being met by a variety of well -meaning charities. Prison is hardly going to make that better.

 Suicide and attempted suicide

 More than 20 countries worldwide still prosecute people for attempting suicide which remains a major cause of death in the world, “ahead of HIV, malaria, breast cancer and even war” according to the Guardian.

Even where not illegal, suicide has a huge impact on law enforcement, on emergency personnel, the economy and the families left behind. Since it usually also relates to larger problems, such as mental health, homelessness, poverty, unemployment and job loss, debt or family breakdown, it doesn’t belong in the justice system, because that deters people seeking help. While making it a crime is largely an issue in low to middle income countries, suicide is the third leading cause of death in Australia with some 3,000 people – mostly men, taking their own lives each year. Increasing cost of living pressures and new draconian welfare measures will not help to bring this total down.

Abortion Rights

Given the urgency of the question which is about to be considered by the US Supreme Court this week, which seeks to overturn US abortion rights, I will mention this today. 

According to the UN some 87 out 145 countries had legalised abortion 2013, though often with restrictions with respect to gestational limits or the conditions under which it would be allowed such as the health of the mother, genetic risk to the foetus or when the pregnancy was the result of incest or rape. Even as almost half of US states are considering repealing the legal right to end a pregnancy, several countries such as Mexico,Argentina, Columbia, South Korea and Thailand have recently either legalised or decriminalised it. 

Infographic: The Legal Status Of Abortion Worldwide | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

In my humble opinion it is irresponsible to force women to bear children if they do not feel able to raise and support them. To do so leads to much misery, not just for parents but also the children in the form of neglect, child abuse and even infanticide. If a society wants people to have more children for whatever reason, then it should make sure that the economic and social conditions encourage it including providing adequate childcare. If it wishes to avoid abortion it must also provide adequate sex education, free and affordable contraception including the morning -after pill, to enable people to control their fertility in other ways.

While banning abortion is not unconstitutional under the US law, Peru recently had to pay compensation after being found in violation of  several articles in The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, by the  UN Human Rights Committee, for denying a woman an abortion in a case where the foetus had a fatal genetic anomaly.

Unfortunately the US is one of seven countries in the world, and the only developed country - otherwise only Iran, Tonga , Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Palau have yet to ratify, which has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees liberty and self determination of the person. To its shame has also  prosecuted some 1600 women, most of them on low incomes and or of colour, since the passage of Roe vs Wade in 1973, which legalised abortion and gave women the right to determine what happened to their bodies. This is a true miscarriage of justice, if you'll pardon the pun, especially as wealthy people have always been able to obtain abortions, whether legal or not.

 Let's hope the law or at least president Biden recognises the rights of women and sends the proposed bill back to the Dark Ages where it belongs.

Next time: Victimless Crime, Property Crime, Young Offenders

Soon: Better Prisons, Crime Prevention