The Price Of Prison: Online Tool Estimates The Cost Of Jailing Your Neighbours


A new online tool launched today, despite almost being scuttled by the Abbott government, will allow NSW residents to calculate how much it costs to incarcerate members of their community every year.

Launched by Just Reinvest NSW, the website enables users to search their local government area, and provides data on the number of people incarcerated from the area and the total cost of detaining them, in an attempt to provoke conversations about the cost effectiveness of the state’s justice system.

Based on data from a number of sources, the site puts the state-wide cost of adult and juvenile incarceration, as well as community supervision, at over $2.5 million per day. By using the average cost of incarcerating an individual in the state the site shows that in the Local Government Area of Sydney, for example, it was costing the government over $95,000 per day to incarcerate the almost 400 people from the area imprisoned in 2013, plus monitor the over 300 needing community supervision.

new matilda, incarceration
Incarceration data for the Sydney Local Government Area (IMAGE: Just Reinvest).

The site also provides health statistic, demographics, and a breakdown of Aboriginal versus non-Aboriginal incarceration for each area.

In determining incarceration costs, the calculator does not take into account the remand population, meaning the true expense of detaining alleged and convicted criminals is even higher than the estimates provided.

The calculator was originally commissioned by the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD), an independent body which was defunded by the Abbott government and replaced by a new organisation internal to the Department of Health.

Gino Vumbaca, the former Executive Director of the ANCD, said a number of the Council’s programs were discontinued when it was defunded, but that the money for the calculator had already been contracted and was therefore passed on to Just Reinvest to complete.

“What we wanted to do was promote alternatives to incarceration and alternatives to the criminal justice system: a health based approach,” he said. “We wanted to highlight the level of expenditure and the way it was occurring on criminal justice programs in this country.”

Around the country, both the actual number and rate of imprisoned people per 100,000 adult population is increasing.

Vumbaca stressed that the figures provided by the calculator were based on averages, but said they were able to provide a snapshot of the costs.

Sarah Hopkins, Chair of Just Reinvest NSW and Managing Solicitor at Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), said in one regional area it was costing $5,000 a day to incarcerate 24 people from the community, and that money could be better spent.

“Imagine if that $5000, every day, was injected into making a local community a safer place to be, with activities for kids, with improved health services and educational facilities, with more counsellors and rehabilitation services,” Hopkins said.

“We agree that prison is necessary for some people, but we also believe that preventative measures, such as investing that $5000 per day into that local community could prevent the crime from happening in the first place.”

Justice reinvestment, which aims to collect data to understand the local causes of crime and respond with targeted programs, is currently being trialled in the NSW town of Bourke. Just Reinvest NSW, which is running the trial, is hoping to use the test to make the case for justice reinvestment to the NSW government later this year.

Hopkins said the Bourke project was still in the planning phases, but that it had been encouraging so far, giving the example of a drivers licence assistance scheme helping learn to drive and in turn enabling them to travel to work and access services.

“A licence to drive is also a licence to participate,” she said.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.