The ” tough-on-crime” dilemma

As a society, we face a dilemma in the way we treat criminals. The political right argues that we need to be “tough-on-crime” which means locking up everybody who has committed an offence. The idea behind this is that it keeps society safe for the rest of us with all the bad people incarcerated.


Fulham Correctional Centre in Victoria

 An opposing view is that locking people up is often counter-productive and extremely expensive. Spending time in prison, it is argued, is a shortcut to a life of crime. The money spent on housing prisons would be much better spent on rehabilitation programs.

New research, released by the Sentencing Advisory Council shows that: Legal changes driven by public outcry over cases such as the murder of Jill Meagher have driven an almost 70 per cent increase in Victoria’s prison population in the past decade, despite only a small increase in the crime rate.

New research, released by the Sentencing Advisory Council overnight, suggests the state’s booming prison population is largely being driven by community fears about violent criminals being let out on bail.

The state’s prison population has grown by 67 per cent, from 3908 prisoners to 6520, despite the crime rate increasing by just 4 per cent between 2006 and 2015.

The number of crimes against the person offences has skyrocketed in Victoria, from 23,696 in 2006 to 32,879 in 2015, with the number of people charged with those offences up by 41 per cent.


Professor Arie Freiberg said there was evidence much of this was family violence, and he was concerned the use of ice was driving an upsurge in violent crime by drug users.

This seems to be ample evidence now that incarceration is not the solution to rising crime rates. In fact, it may be exactly the opposite with inadequate rehabilitation programs and early release programs driven by prison numbers making a contribution to rising crime rates.

The dynamics of this situation are shown in the causal loop diagram below. (To help understand this diagram click  How to read a causal loop diagram)


The fundamental dynamic is that the number of convicted criminals and those on remand increase in prison population. This “population pressure” reduces the effectiveness and adequacy of rehabilitation programs. This in turn leads to the initiation of premature early release programs to ease prison overcrowding. Both of these factors lead to an increase in recidivism, often seen in the reoffending of prisoners released on bail. Public outcry normally follows the worst of these cases and the whole cycle begins again.

This particular set of loops is a reinforcing  system which means that the situation continues to get worse as the prison population rises.

One solution is to build more prisons but the previous government tried that and it doesn’t appear to be working. It’s a bit like building new freeways. The more you build, the more you need to build.

It’s a difficult problem for a government to juggle. On one hand, they wish to keep the cost of incarceration down and on the other they do not wish to be held responsible for the actions of criminals who are released into the community.

In Systems terms, it is called a wicked problem. Wicked problems are those problems which don’t have any obvious solution and, in fact, may have no solution whatsoever. All that can be done is a series of compromises to keep the situation under reasonable control.

One thought on “The ” tough-on-crime” dilemma

  1. Takes me back to being in one out your classes and the loops for drugs / crime Agree with your logic. Also we do not want to be like usa with highest imprissonment per head of population and what could be argued is a growth Private business with basically slave labour (extremely low prison wages) producing May managed goods.

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