NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Penal Policy in Australia

May 14, 2003

Law and order policy in Australia has been very different from that in the United States. During the past decade, the guiding principle in Australia has been that imprisonment should only be used as a last resort. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s Australia actually decreased its use of imprisonment rate despite an escalating crime rate.

  • In the mid-1960s, Australia locked up approximately 120 people for every 1,000 serious crimes that were committed, but by the 1980s this figure had fallen to fewer than 30, and it has stayed around this level ever since.
  • Between 1964 and 1986, when the number of serious crimes increased by 428 percent (from 596 to 2,553 per 100,000), the number of prisoners per 100,000 population actually decreased, from 72 to 69.

This is in marked contrast to the pattern in the United States where, from the 1980s onwards, both the imprisonment increased substantially. Thus, we see the crime rate climbing until the 1980s, then flattening following the stabilization of the imprisonment rate, then falling through the 1990s following the increased rate of imprisonment from the 1980s onward.

These trends support Charles Murray's analysis of the potency of penal policy and leading him to draw two basic lessons:

  • When crime is low and stable, it is a catastrophe to stop locking people up.
  • Prison can stop a rising crime rate and then begin to push it down.

In Australia, it does seem that the spiraling crime rates of the 1970s and 1980s had as much to do with declining detection and conviction as with declining use of imprisonment. This suggests that penal policy is an important element in the fight against crime.

Source: Peter Saunders and Nicole Billante, "Does Prison Work?" Vol. 18, No. 4, Summer 2002-2003, Policy, Center for Independent Studies.


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