Australia: Unlocking implementation strategies to reduce recidivism

Australia is facing record prisoner numbers – putting pressure on an already stretched system. Between 2012 and 2017, Queensland saw a 52% increase in the prison population.1

The interim solution seems to be upgrading existing facilities to increase bed numbers or building new centres.

However, the real key to a sustainable corrections system is to lower prisoner numbers whilst preserving community safety. There are increasing calls to overhaul the entire justice system and to look at holistic approaches to ensuring that fewer people end up in our prison system.

It is no surprise that in the current environment, the Queensland Government has announced that the Queensland Productivity Commission will undertake an inquiry to determine how best to reduce imprisonment and recidivism.

Below, we discuss three ideas to achieve reductions in recidivism.

  1. Different approaches to funding of services

Recently, there has been an increasing focus on outcomes-based contracting by governments, to ensure that service providers are incentivised to achieve specified outcomes – for example, a targeted reduction in recidivism.

Governments are structuring payment provisions with some or all of the service provider's fee dependent on the achievement of the outcomes. The benefit of this model is that governments are able to focus on the policy outcome while handing the method of delivery to the private sector. The extent to which the service provider fails to achieve the outcome, the service is cheaper for the State.

This model is most likely to be effective in circumstances where the outcome can be clearly and objectively defined and measured, the service provider has sufficient control of the outcome and where the rewards and remedies are clear.

In a prisons services contract it may be appropriate to require the service provider to meet certain recidivism targets if the service provider is responsible for overall program delivery for a significant period of a person's incarceration. In contrast, service providers to high risk individuals with complex needs are unlikely to be in a position to agree to a performance-based regime when so many factors about an outcome (such as reoffending) are beyond the service provider's control and rely on other providers of service delivery (for example, health, housing and other support services).

Circumstances that arise once a person is released from prison, such as employment and housing, are indicators of whether a former detainee will return to prison.

For a material reduction in recidivism rates, long-term management mechanisms (when the person is no longer being provided services in the prison environment) need to be considered.

  1. Involve the whole supply chain

Service provision in the corrections context does not occur in a vacuum. All service environments are constrained by the physical environment.

Reducing recidivism should be considered at the design and construction stages of any prison project.

Nordic prisons are considered to be the gold standard for corrections services, measured by their low levels of recidivism. Among other things, this is because prisons are designed with a strong rehabilitative focus, making the space, comfort and privacy of inmates a priority, without sacrificing security. Prison spaces cleverly use colour and art to engender positive psychological effects on prisoners.

A Nordic-style solution isn't the answer for every jurisdiction for cultural, political and financial reasons. However, while Australia invests in new facilities and expansions to facilities, it should look for all opportunities maximise reduction recidivism through the built structure.

  1. Look beyond the prison

The issues facing the corrections sector are not unique to that sector. Many other sectors, including the mental health system, are facing the same challenges – managing institutional care, transition and reintegration.

Borrowing insights and knowledge from other disciplines could open doors for innovative approaches to service provision in prisons.

We know that community re-integration is crucial to reducing recidivism, and the statistics show that the vast majority of people returning to prison are unemployed at the time of re-entry to the justice system.

Singapore's 'Yellow Ribbon Project' is a shining example of how better community perceptions of former detainees can have a positive impact on return to prison rates.The program encourages employers to register to employ former detainees. Singapore has seen significant benefits in the reduction in recidivism.

If Australia could generate community support for rehabilitation, the flow-on effects for reducing recidivism would undoubtedly be significant. A pilot program could be established by the Government at a prison (such as Borallon, which already delivers TAFE vocational programs) whereby:

  • training programs are targeted to align with the needs of organisations who register to employ released inmates;
  • organisations who register receive a material subsidy from the State towards the cost of employment;
  • the State supplements the released inmate's income with an amount being conditional on the released inmate not returning to prison within a specified time.

The pilot program could be government funded and driven – the government would use the potential savings which it would have expended on the inmates if they returned to prison.

An alternative delivery mechanism, such as a social benefit bond arrangement, could also be investigated.


The corrections industry – especially youth detention – continues to occupy the spotlight, and the public have their eye on public funds spent.

Different contracting methods, whole-of-supply chain consultation, and expertise and cultural change beyond the prison all offer radical opportunities to derive value in this important and politically-charged space.


1Queensland Productivity Commission, Imprisonment and Recidivism Issues Paper, September 2018

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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