Reducing Incarceration Rates in Australia Through Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Crime Prevention

AuthorMichael McGreevy,Fran Baum,Lester Wright,Matthew Fisher,Dennis McDermott,Toni Delany-Crowe,Samantha Battams
Published date01 July 2021
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(6) 618 –645
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420979178
Reducing Incarceration Rates
in Australia Through Primary,
Secondary, and Tertiary
Crime Prevention
Samantha Battams1, Toni Delany-Crowe1,
Matthew Fisher1, Lester Wright1, Michael McGreevy1,
Dennis McDermott2, and Fran Baum1
In Australia, incarceration rates have steadily increased since the 1980s, providing
an imperative for crime prevention. We explored the extent to which Australian
justice sector policies were aimed at preventing crime, using a framework for
“primary, secondary and tertiary” crime prevention. We analyzed policies and
legislation (n = 141) across Australian jurisdictions (a census was undertaken from
May to September 2016, with policies spanning from 1900 to 2022). We found a
strong focus on tertiary crime prevention, with recidivism rather than root causes
of crime problematised. We also found little focus on primary crime prevention,
despite some high-level cross sectoral strategies designed to prevent crime. In this
paper, we will use the framework of Bacchi’s “what’s the problem?” approach,
considering levels of crime prevention, social determinants of health, and discourses
surrounding crime. We discuss policy implications and make suggestions for policy
reform and accountability mechanisms to reduce crime and incarceration.
crime prevention, crime reduction, criminal justice policy, policy implications,
research and policy
1Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
2La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Samantha Battams, Senior Research Fellow, Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity, Flinders
University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, South Australia 5001, Australia.
979178CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420979178Criminal Justice Policy ReviewBattams et al.
Battams et al. 619
Incarceration rates have fluctuated (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001), but
Australia currently has the highest incarceration rate since federation (Australian
Bureau of Statistics, 2001, 2019). Over recent decades, the imprisonment rate has
steadily increased (see Table 1) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018b), since 1985 by
130% (Leigh, 2019), and from 2013 to 2018, the number of people in full-time cus-
tody in Australia increased by 39% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018a). The aver-
age imprisonment rate (221 per 100,000) in Australia is now higher than that of
Victoria in its early colonial days (210 per 100,000 in 1870 (Millar & Vedelago, 2019,
June 27). The rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in
Australia is much higher than that of other Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics,
2017, 2018b; Leigh, 2019) (see Table 2). There is also a strong association between
people with mental health disorders and imprisonment rates (Australian Institute of
Health and Welfare, 2015; Baldry, 2014; Victorian Government, 2019).
Even the Australian jurisdictions with the lowest imprisonment rate increases (VIC
and TAS) have doubled their imprisonment rate since the 1980s (Leigh, 2019); how-
ever, differences across jurisdictions are still evident and can be explained by local
penal practices and cultures (Tubex et al., 2016) and the extent of mental health treat-
ment services provided.
Overall increases in incarceration rates across jurisdictions have been attributed to
the increasingly punitive nature of prison reforms over recent years, high remand rates
in some jurisdictions (Tubex et al., 2016), higher reporting rates, stricter policing prac-
tices, tougher sentencing laws, and more stringent bail laws (Leigh, 2019). The over-
representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the corrections system has
been explained (a) institutionalized racism and the structural racialisation of punish-
ment and (b) structural disadvantage leading to a greater involvement in crime (Tubex
et al., 2016).
Prevention of crime is imperative given the pressures on the criminal justice
system from higher rates of incarceration, the personal and taxpayer costs of incar-
ceration (Bushnell, 2017), and the personal and social costs of crime (Mayhew,
2003). The purpose of this research was to understand the extent to which Australian
justice sector policies focus on the prevention of crime, and address social determi-
nants of health (Commission on Social Determinants of Health, 2008) which over-
lap with identified social determinants of incarceration (Australian Law Reform
Commission, 2017). The social determinants of health refer to the conditions (such
as housing, employment, and educational opportunities) that shape people’s lives
and affect their health and these conditions are shaped by the distribution of power
and resources (Commission on Social Determinants of Health, 2008). Social deter-
minants of incarceration identified in Australia include low education and unem-
ployment, poor health and disability, insecure housing and homelessness, child
protection and youth justice contact, harmful use of alcohol, family violence, inter-
generational trauma, colonization, discrimination and racism, disconnection from

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