Radical $2bn plan to put prisoners to work

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Low-risk, nonviolent offenders would work 40 hours a week for businesses struggling to fill job vacancies under a proposal floated by a right-leaning think tank.

The Institute of Public Affairs has released a new report, outlining reforms Australia’s governments could take to simultaneously address “costly over-incarceration” and a worker shortage crisis.

The report found that in 2021-22, as many as 14,000 incarcerated young adults could have been added to the workforce if justice reforms were undertaken, and that would have improved governments’ budget bottom lines by $1.95bn.

The report said the savings would come from reduced incarceration costs and increased income tax revenue.

Under the IPA’s proposal, low-risk, nonviolent prisoners would work full time in obliging businesses. Picture: NCA NewWire / Dan PeledUnder the IPA’s proposal, low-risk, nonviolent prisoners would work full time in obliging businesses. Picture: NCA NewWire / Dan Peled

Report co-author Mirko Bagaric said placing low-risk, nonviolent offenders on award wages at willing businesses would reduce the “severe, inflation-inducing labour shortage Australia is experiencing”.

“It costs taxpayers over $147,000 every year to detain each prisoner. Most nonviolent low-risk offenders should be given the opportunity to have their prison term substituted for a community-based sanction, the core element of which is a full-time employment,” he said.

“Much of the present labour scarcity is in low-skilled industries such as hospitality and retail. This is driving up prices and increasing the cost of living for all Australians. Governments at all levels need to think more intelligently to address both problems with a co-ordinated solution”.

Professor Bagaric proposes employers would have full knowledge of an offender’s criminal history, and their release would operate similarly to community-based orders – however, they would be paid award wages.

There are more than 400,000 job vacancies across the country, as the unemployment rate remains low at 3.7 per cent.

Meanwhile, there are more than 41,000 people in prison – an increase of 37 per cent since 2012-13 – and one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the OECD.

Work from prison-type programs exist in a number of states, including in NSW where inmates are able to work for a textile factory or a bakery, for example, for a certain amount of money a week.

NSW Corrective Services also offers works release programs for inmates close to the end of their sentence.

The Australian Retailers’ Association and the Council of Small Business were contacted for comment.

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