Learn more about some of the issues, our history in this area, and the crucial role of service provision and advocacy in creating better futures for people involved with the criminal justice system.

Understanding the situation, and the clear and critical need for action

At present—all around the country—Australia is locking up a record number of people.

Since the 1980s, imprisonment rates have grown steadily. As a result, in the past few years we’ve seen the highest levels in over a century, with more than 40,000 Australians in prison as of June 2020[1]. It’s important to note that nearly 60% of the people currently incarcerated have been in prison before [2].

It might be easy to suggest that Australia’s record rise in imprisonment is simply a reflection of more crimes being committed. In fact, the inverse is true.

According to ‘Australia’s prison dilemma’—a 2021 research report produced by the Australian Federal Government’s Productivity Commission—these escalating imprisonment rates have occurred alongside a fall in many types of recorded crime.

The same report points to several potential causes for the rise in imprisonment despite crime rates falling over time:

  • By virtue of having more people in jail, there are less people free to commit crimes (though this is deemed to play ‘a minor role’ in explaining the situation)
  • The Australian criminal justice system is becoming far more punitive, resulting from tough-on-crime policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and measures designed to make bail harder to access
  • “Changes to the characteristics of offenders and/or the composition of crimes have resulted in a higher chance of imprisonment among a smaller pool of offenders” [3].

According to another report—again released by the Productivity Commission, in 2022—entrenched recidivism (the term for reoffending after spending time in jail) sees 53.1% of Australia’s prison population return to jail within two years. This accounts for more than half of the $5.2 billion annual spend required to maintain prisons. Or, a cost of roughly $10,000 per person, per month.

While prisons can play a role in protecting the community from violent acts, 42% of people in Australian prisons in 2020 were non-violent offenders, considered a very low risk to the community.

This means we have more people going into jails—despite many being deemed low risk to the community—who are then more likely to end up back in jail, at a significant ongoing cost to the community.

Something has to change: prevention and new pathways play a crucial role in avoiding a vicious cycle

The system is inherently broken.

We know that a range of factors for disadvantage—including unemployment, low educational participation or qualification, intergenerational imprisonment, previous time spent in prison, substance abuse, and mental illness—are significant risks that correlate with potential time in prison.

In other words, if you come from a disadvantaged background (and particularly a background or an environment of sustained disadvantage) you are more at risk of having contact with the criminal justice system, which will likely perpetuate the ongoing disadvantage that you face. It’s an enormously difficult cycle to break.

To add to these challenges, criminal justice systems around the country have become much more punitive. For example, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales have all made changes to parole laws since 2010 that reduce the discretion of courts and local parole boards.

Some researchers argue that tighter parole conditions are likely to increase imprisonment rates by increasing the likely suspension of paroles[4]. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of prisoners being held on parole for longer (or not applying for parole at all), which may increase offending by giving prisoners fewer chances to integrate meaningfully into society on supervised parole programs.

In simpler terms, by being more punitive, criminal justice systems run the risk of perpetuating criminal activity for the long term.

While these are relatively basic examples of the many complicated considerations associated with the criminal justice system, one thing becomes clear…

Australian criminal justice systems are plagued by long-term cyclical issues that are highly likely to repeat over time, with devastating impact for both individuals and the community at large. The only way to break these cycles is through acting and advocating for change.

We support people to flourish by nourishing the full person, at every stage of life

When you consider the programs, activities, and advocacy efforts we engage in today, many emanate from—and are critically interconnected with—the criminal justice system. Everything connects to justice and crime prevention.

We engage in a number of supports and activities beyond our work directly related to the criminal justice system.

This is because, based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics[4]:

  • 78% of 25-34-year-old prison entrants have not completed high school.
  • 23% of 25-34-year-old prison entrants were unemployed.
  • 29% of all prison entrants report some limitation in participating in activity, employment or education.

Thus, our focus on education, training and employment as a crucial means to support people to explore pathways out of the cycle of time spent in prison.

The same data set reports that:

  • 65% of prison entrants had used illicit drugs within the past year.
  • 2-in-5 have a history of mental illness.

Thus, our focus on mental health and wellbeing, to support people in reducing harm to themselves and others, to establish healthy social connections, and to engage in their community.

More than half of all people leaving prisons across Australia are expected to be homeless upon release[5], and face an immediate, incredibly difficult struggle to find suitable, safe, secure and affordable accommodation. Thus, our focus on housing programs, to ensure people can access safe spaces with wrap-around supports to assist them in their pathway back to the community.

Our greatest goal in justice and crime prevention is—and long has been—to divert people away from harm. Away from established systems, like prisons, that are simply not helpful.

Thus, our Worth A Second Chance campaign continues to unite members of the public in calling for a fairer youth justice system through a campaign calling on Australian Governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years. By ensuring less children are exposed to the criminal justice system, we reduce the impact of harsh punishments that ‘close the door on kids early’.

A history of striving for justice and doing what is just

Jesuit Social Services has been working for 45 years to help children, adults and families recover from disadvantage, develop their skills, strengthen their connection to family and community, and build their resilience so they can participate fully in their community and flourish.

As our work has expanded, so too have the opportunities to support people through a range of stages in their lives, so they can engage with education, find work, have stable housing, connect with culture, and be on a pathway to inclusion rather than marginalisation.

Increasingly, our work in justice and crime prevention is able to draw on our other program areas, including The Men’s Project, our Centre for Just Places, and our well-established work in mental health, housing, settlement, education, and employment.

Our activity and advocacy reflects our understanding of the whole person, their connection to family and community, and their various strengths and challenges.