Australia’s high recidivism rate demands immediate action. A 2022 measurement asserts that nationally, more than half of all released prisoners reoffend within two years of release.
The key to reducing recidivism relies on a change in public perception and intensive tailored support when the individuals are most vulnerable – upon release.
One in four of Workskil Australia’s participants possess a criminal record or have interacted with the criminal justice system. They share many of the same challenges as all job seekers, including finding suitable housing, finding stable employment and managing mental health.
These are not isolated challenges, and we know tailored community and welfare support stops reoffending. We sometimes hear in employment services that it’s easier to reoffend and be guaranteed a bed than to face another night of uncertainty, being hungry and cold.
A Productivity Commission report places the increasing taxpayer costs of incarceration at an average of $367 per prisoner per day, with Australia’s prison system costing upwards of $6 billion annually.
Reinvesting a portion of this expenditure to critical support pre- and post-release will reduce recidivism, ultimately saving taxpayer spending and benefiting public safety.
Stable employment offers long-term social and economic benefits. Yet employment is only viable for many Workskil Australia participants after first addressing basic living and welfare needs.
Current employment services can fund emergency accommodation, training, transport, food, phone credit, tools and uniforms and provide wage subsidies to entice employers to take on job seekers and keep them on long term.
Once we address the other challenges, individuals with convictions can have stronger employment outcomes than job seekers without a justice history. Particularly, prior offenders who are mature aged, refugees or culturally and linguistically diverse are all far more likely to obtain stable employment.
There are several factors behind this. Most prior offenders are highly motivated to work. Individuals may gain accredited training and support while incarcerated, making them more employable. Many are also committed to repaying the trust.
Homeless and First Nations participants with convictions remain the most disadvantaged, facing additional challenges and requiring intensive support.
A framework involving immediate post-release support and a change of perception will go a long way toward reducing recidivism. It should include the following actions:
The state governments must fund short-term accommodation when a prison leaver doesn’t possess immediate and suitable housing. Safe accommodation can provide a foundation for the individual to engage with support services and reconcile social connections free from negative influences, even if the accommodation is provided for a minimum of two weeks at a motel.
A budget motel, plus the price of meals, is a far cry from $367 per day per prisoner.
The state of the housing and rental markets pose ongoing challenges. Temporary accommodation offers a potential solution as governments address the current housing crisis.
Prison leavers are often exempt from Centrelink requirements for at least two to four weeks, depending on where they will live on release. This also pertains to appointments with employment services. The exemption is well-intended, but it delays access to essential funding and support services, placing the individual at a vast disadvantage.
We suggest that prisoners awaiting release have the exemption waived for employment services to secure an appointment with a provider as soon as possible. We can then deliver more immediate crisis support rather than the individual spending weeks fending for themselves, often reoffending before they engage.
Most registered training organisations require payment upfront. Prison leavers are in no financial position to pay for training.
We rely on government funding to train participants in industries with strong employment outcomes, such as construction. Earlier investment in professional development and expanding training while incarcerated can improve outcomes upon release and create a more positive outlook for the future.
More broadly, government-funded initiatives like fee-free TAFE must remain in place to address the labour market’s ongoing skills shortages and expand to include the qualifications for addressing shortages in employment services.
Privacy and social security legislation often restricts the sharing of participant information with partners and related services. This has the adverse effect of delaying or limiting an individual’s access to appropriate care.
Many of our participants face multiple barriers, requiring assistance from a range of support services. Without prior knowledge regarding their challenges and care, each subsequent service must repeat the process of identifying and planning to address these matters.
More work is required at a policy level to alleviate this burden and allow employment and community services to provide relevant and tailored support most efficiently, minimising the cost to taxpayers.
Our current criminal justice system needs retooling. Offenders seeking change deserve rehabilitation and our support. Investing in their future is not just humane, it's smart. We can reduce recidivism and build safer communities by equipping individuals with the tools to succeed post-prison.
The burden of change does not solely lie with government. We all have a role to play, and the economic and social benefits will provide a good return on investment.
Australian Government Productivity Commission: https://www.pc.gov.au/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2023/justice
Australian Government Productivity Commission: https://www.pc.gov.au/research/completed/prison-dilemma/prison-dilemma.pdf