Could Australia’s incarceration crisis be the solution to the country’s worker shortage?

Empirically grounded criminal justice reform proposals suggest that Australian governments could kill two birds with one stone by offering low-risk non-violent offenders jobs in sectors facing worker shortages rather than imprisonment, thereby addressing the country’s incarceration crisis and unprecedented worker shortage.

Let Them Work: How Criminal Justice Reform Can Help Address Australia’s Worker Shortage, recently released by the Institute of Public Affairs, outlines reforms state governments can implement to address over-incarceration through adopting an offender employment program.

Under the proposed reforms, incarcerated non-violent, low-risk offenders would be eligible to work for willing businesses at award rates in sectors experiencing labour shortages.

Employers would be fully aware of the offender’s criminal history, the program functioning similarly to community-based orders, except that offenders would be paid award wages and work full-time rather than performing token work tasks for no pay.

Dean of the Swinburne University of Technology Law School Professor Mirko Bagaric says sensible criminal justice reform can address the excessive burden on Australia’s prison system while simultaneously filling persistent job vacancies in the economy.

“As Australia faces simultaneous incarceration and worker shortage crises, many low-risk non-violent offenders could be gainfully employed in the community right now without risk,” Professor Bagaric said.

“Rather than being a drain on taxpayers’ funds, low-risk non-violent offenders should be working, paying tax, and helping to reduce the severe, inflation-inducing labour shortage Australia is experiencing.”

Let Them Work: How Criminal Justice Reform Can Help Address Australia's Worker Shortage, released by the Institute of Public Affairs, outlines reforms state governments can implement to address over-incarceration through adopting an offender employment program.
Let Them Work: How Criminal Justice Reform Can Help Address Australia’s Worker Shortage, released by the Institute of Public Affairs, outlines reforms state governments can implement to address over-incarceration. Photos: Zoe Askew

Australia imprisons more people than is financially sustainable or jurisprudentially justifiable, with the incarceration rate increasing by 240 per cent since the mid-1980s.

The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services 2023 indicates the cost of detaining one prisoner per year is $405 per day, $147,000 per year.

With 40,591 people incarcerated nationwide from June 2021 to June 2022, operating expenditure on corrective services amounts to nearly $4.5 billion.

About 42 per cent of prisoners have not committed sexual or violent offences.

There were 10,524 prisoners in Victoria at the end of January 2023, 8997 males and 1527 females.

“Most non-violent low-risk offenders should be given the opportunity to have their prison term substituted for a community-based sanction, the core element of which is full-time employment,” Professor Bagaric said.

“Much of the present labour scarcity is in low-skilled industries such as hospitality and retail; this is driving up prices and increasing the cost of living for all Australians.

“Governments at all levels need to think more intelligently to address both problems with a coordinated solution,” he said.

“The community has nothing to fear from non-violent low-risk offenders; it is punishing itself by imprisoning them.”

According to research, if Australian governments had reformed sentencing so non-violent low-risk offenders were not detained but instead were put to work in industries that urgently require workers, in 2021-22, as many as 14,000 young adults could have been added to the workforce, improving governments’ bottom lines by $1.95 billion through reduced incarceration costs and increased income tax revenue.

Research also demonstrated that had reforms been implemented between 2016-17 and 2021-22, total budgetary savings from reduced incarceration costs and increased income tax revenue would have been about $10.4 billion.

Diverting low-risk, non-violent offenders from prison and giving them employment opportunities would improve their lives and prospects, promote community safety, boost the economy through increased productivity, and reduce net government spending and debt.

GEO Group and The Wellington Shire Council have a partnership in which offenders incarcerated at Fulham Correctional Centre assist the council in completing maintenance and open space works.

Let Them Work reform is no new concept, with similar programs implemented in Gippsland through a collaborative partnership between the Wellington Shire Council and Fulham Correctional Centre.

“Wellington Shire Council and The GEO Group continue a successful and long-running partnership, supporting the rehabilitation of prisoners back into the workforce,” Wellington Shire Council Mayor Ian Bye said.

“The community work program has been running for 15 years, only taking a short break due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The community work program allows offenders to pay back the community for their offending behaviour, assists in their rehabilitation and supports prisoners in developing transferrable work and employability skills by working on projects with tangible benefits for the local community.

Through the community work program, prisoners build positive relationships with the local community to break down barriers and support meaningful work that benefits both the prisoners and the community.

The Wellington Shire Council and GEO Group partnership assist the council in completing maintenance, and open space works, contributing to Wellington’s public open space network.

“Council works closely with prisoners from Fulham Correctional Centre to complete maintenance works throughout the municipality,” Cr Bye said.

“Participants in the program have made a significant contribution to Wellington Shire Council’s public open space network over the last 15 years.

“The program recommenced in January 2023 following the COVID-19 pandemic, with participants known as the ‘Bush Gang’ working five days each week, assisting with general parks maintenance including brush cutting, mulching and litter collection. The program will focus on street tree planting from mid-April 2023.”

In 2007, Council and Fulham Correctional Centre received the Corrections Victoria Community Work Partnership Award, recognising the significant partnership and benefit the program provides.

The Department of Justice and Community Safety focuses on providing opportunities to help people turn their lives around, which are supported through programs such as the community work program along with the allocation of $37 million across three years in the Victorian Budget 2022/23, to ensure prisoners have access to quality VET education programs that reduce barriers to paid employment upon release.

“Corrections Victoria is focussed on providing opportunities to help people turn their lives around, and having the opportunity to learn skills and take part in work while in prison is an important part of this process,” a spokesperson from the Department of Justice and Community Safety said.

“We know that ensuring that prisoners can leave with a skill or trade and connections to the community increases their chances of successful reintegration and reduces reoffending.

“To support this, we run a prisons industries program which employs more than 1400 prisoners from 13 public prisons in 65 distinct industries, helping prisoners gain vital skills to re-enter the workforce.”

With the Wellington Shire Council having benefited from community work programs, the Department of Justice and Community Safety concentrated on providing opportunities to help people turn their lives around, and the costly portion of taxpayer money spent on detaining non-violent offenders could the Institute of Public Affairs Let Them Work reform be a realistic answer to two national issues?