Criminal Law

By Minuri Dharmasena


The State of Incarceration: New South Wales’ Prison Problem

New South Wales has a jail problem.  The prison population in the state is skyrocketing and is illustrative of a bigger problem across the country. Despite declining crime rates,[i] the state’s prison population has increased by more than 38% in the last decade. The prison system now holds over 13,400 prisoners and costs taxpayers over $1.08 billion per year in operating costs. “Tough on crime” policies and an overreliance on incarceration has led to the development of a costly system that is failing all involved – taxpayers, public safety and, most importantly, offenders who are kept trapped in a cycle of disadvantage and incarceration.

State of Incarceration: Insights into Imprisonment in New South Wales

Earlier this month, the Justice Reform Initiative published State of Incarceration: Insights into Imprisonment in New South Wales, a report on the rates and impact of incarceration in NSW.[ii] Its findings included that, of the state’s total prison population:

  1. 2% are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;
  2. around 221 are children, 41.6% of whom are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children;
  3. 6% are being held on remand, prior to sentencing; and
  4. worryingly, over half (53.7%) have been imprisoned before.

“Jailing is Failing”

Countless studies have shown imprisonment does little in the form of rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.[iii] In fact, it increases the likelihood that an individual would continue to come into contact with the criminal justice system. According to the Justice Reform Initiative’s report, over half of the prisoners in New South Wales are repeat offenders who have been imprisoned before.

Imprisonment is just one step in a cycle of poverty, disadvantage, reoffending and future imprisonment. Many who enter the criminal justice system, particularly children, come from backgrounds of poverty, trauma and disadvantage. Prison further cements that disadvantage by separating individuals from their families and communities. Once they leave prison, they face extremely poor prospects of finding a home or employment. The resulting poverty and lack of opportunity forces those individuals to reoffend and return to prison. Thus flows the cycle of incarceration.

Reducing Recidivism

Services that support inmates in developing healthy relationships with family and provide meaningful education, training and community support, as well as post-release accommodation and support services that address poverty, trauma and disability and enable reintegration into society, have proven effective in reducing reoffending and recidivism.[iv] As have services that prevent at-risk groups from entering the criminal justice system. It is time for the New South Wales government to invest in meaningful services and break the cycle of incarceration.

If you or someone you know have been accused of a criminal offence, please contact our criminal law team at (02) 6279 4222 for assistance.


[i] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Recorded Crime – Victims (Web Page, 24 June 2021) <>.

[ii] Justice Reform Initiative, State of Incarceration Insights into Imprisonment in New South Wales (Report, December 2021).

[iii] See, for example: Australian Law Reform Commission, Recidivism and prior record of imprisonment (Web Page, 9 January 2018) <>; Australian Institute of Criminology, Recidivism in Australia: findings and future research (Research and Public Policy Series No 80, 2007).

[iv] Justice Reform Initiative, State of Incarceration Insights into Imprisonment in New South Wales (Report, December 2021).