Every year, Australia jails more of its people, with the number of prisoners increasing by 30% in the 10 years to 2013, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
These incarceration rates might make some of us feel safer, but at what cost? At around $250 a day to keep someone in jail, or more than $90,000 annually, Australian states spent more than $3.3 billion on their penal systems in 2014.
And those being locked away continue to be some of our most disadvantaged.
Half of the nation’s 33,000 plus prisoners suffer from mental health disorders or cognitive impairment and close to a third (27%) are Indigenous.
Social scientist Professor Eileen Baldry and her team are investigating how and why otherwise privileged societies like Australia are criminalising so many of their most vulnerable citizens.
The research – using data sets to identify life events and circumstances common to vulnerable people entering the criminal justice system – is helping to identify opportunities to intervene early to achieve better social outcomes and reduce crime rates.
“The criminal justice system is the microcosm of disadvantage and inequality,” says Baldry, who is Deputy Dean of UNSW Arts and Social Sciences. “The Holy Grail for me is to reduce the number of people with complex needs and disability being needlessly and distressingly caught up in the revolving door of the criminal justice system.”
Her team’s recent study of almost 3,000 people in the criminal justice system, most of whom have mental health disorders or cognitive disabilities, has laid the foundation for advances in policy and subsequent research in Australia and around the world. And their takeaway finding: prevention is key.
The true cost of crime in terms of human suffering, property damage, medical care and lost productivity is monumental. Yet, Baldry says, there are towns in NSW with dozens of police but no permanent mental health or disability service.
“The government would get a far better return for its money by investing in health, education, job creation and early child and family support to prevent young people becoming repeat offenders,” she says.
Funded by three ARC Linkage grants, Baldry is working with policy makers, and government and non-government service providers, to improve employment prospects for people leaving prison to tackle high recidivism rates, and to help forge positive life pathways for vulnerable young people.
In 2009, the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW recognised Baldry’s “indefatigable” support for justice-related causes by awarding her its highest honour: the Justice Medal. It’s a particularly noteworthy achievement for a researcher without a legal background.