Partners in Crime: The relationship between disadvantage and Australia’s criminal justice systems



An empty outdoor prison yard in Australia - Partners in crime header

Partners in crime is a report from the Centre for Policy Development’s Effective Government and Resilient People and Places programs that investigates the relationship between disadvantage and Australia’s criminal justice systems.

The Partners in crime report draws on findings from a range of consultations with experts from across the sector including academics, service providers, practitioners, government and community actors from multiple jurisdictions, through individual consultations, roundtable discussions, field trips and conferences.  ​

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Australia cannot tackle disadvantage without comprehensive reform to its criminal justice systems, at the community and systems levels, backed up by evidence.

Partners in crime sets out the three drivers of change to address this issue

Findings of Partners in Crime report

Partners in crime - heatmaps of NSW showing showing high correlation between dimensions of disadvantage and incarceration rates
Partners in Crime finds disadvantage and incarceration are highly correlated, and that contact with the criminal justice system comounds disadvantage

Partners in crime found that disadvantage for Australia’s most vulnerable people is compounded as they pass through one of ten criminal justice systems — one for each state and territory, one federal system and a de facto tenth system, as all systems are experienced differently by First Nations peoples.

These systems have increasingly become the default policy response to complex disadvantage. As Professor Eileen Baldry, Leanne Dowse and Melissa Clarence have pointed out, when people experience persistent disadvantage and have complex needs they “don’t just fall through the cracks, they are directed into the criminal justice conveyor belt”, a cycle which is easier to enter than to leave.

These systems are trapping more individuals, families and communities in cycles of disadvantage. Before COVID-19, we were jailing more people than at any time since 1900, in both total number and per capita. Most Australian states have an incarceration rate above the global average, except the ACT and Victoria.

The report finds that Australia’s prison population is now disproportionately made up of some of Australia’s most vulnerable people, including First Nations peoples, individuals with mental health conditions and disability, and people with a history of family incarceration.

Criminal convictions are concentrated in a relatively small number of areas experiencing broad disadvantage. 

Partners in crime contends that for the most vulnerable Australians, contact with the criminal justice systems causes disadvantage and exacerbate vulnerability. A survey of prisoners showed that many face higher homelessness on release than on entry, and they also experience significant barriers to employment.

Three drivers of change from Partners in Crime

Partners in crime chart showing three drivers of change for criminal justice reform
Partners in Crime identifies three key drivers of change - community, evidence and coordination

Australia cannot tackle disadvantage without comprehensive reform to its criminal justice systems, at the community and systems levels, backed up by evidence.

Partners in crime proposes three drivers of change that can work together to address this challenge, with no one change sufficient.

  1. Communities — long-term investment in local communities to support vulnerable families and people most at risk of entering criminal justice systems, including “community deals” for justice reinvestment;
  2. Evidence — gather better data to improve understanding of effective responses and inform new strategies, including an Australian “what works” centre; and
  3. Coordination — of policy and law reform efforts, underpinned by an intergovernmental process with a broad coalition to build the authorising environment for change.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought key issues in the criminal justice system into sharp focus and offers an opportunity to look at the law and policy reforms which are available and required to re-imagine how systems can deliver for all Australians.

There is a unique opportunity for governments, philanthropy, service providers, communities, legal practitioners, and employers across jurisdictions to realise these changes.

Praise for Partners in Crime


Partners in Crime was produced by Frances Kitt, Allison Orr, Caitlin McCaffrie, Travers McLeod and research intern Ben Maltby, with assistance from Rod Marsh and Peter Harmsworth AO.

They were guided by an informal advisory group, drawn from members of the  Centre for Policy Development Research Committee and Board.

The analysis presented in this report was initially undertaken as part of a study for the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

Research for this report informed the Transitions to Employment roundtable series which considered interventions to tackle long term unemployment and underemployment for the groups in our society facing the greatest disadvantage, including those in contact with the criminal justice system.

We are grateful to all those who participated and made this report possible, particularly those with personal experience of Australia’s criminal justice systems, many of whom have provided feedback throughout the development of this report.

Partners in Crime in the media

Research by the Centre for Policy Development found imprisonment rates were higher than the global average in every Australian state and territory except the ACT.
THE Territory has a higher proportion of people in prison than the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to a new report
A report into Australia's justice system has found that Indigenous people are still significantly over-represented in Australia’s prisons. Australia's incarceration rate has jumped by 47 per cent in the past two decades despite a drop in crime rates.

About the authors