NSW: The Prison State


So much so, in fact, that NSW locks up twice as many people as Victoria’s total, and at double the Victorian rate per head of population, according to the newly convened Crime and Justice Reform Committee (CJRC).

The CJRC is comprised of a number of former judges and criminal law experts who believe that the current state of the prison system and the culture of imprisonment in NSW is spiralling out of control.

Currently, there are over 10,000 people in prison in NSW. The CJRC’s research indicates that if these levels of imprisonment are maintained, NSW will need to build a new medium-sized prison every year. What’s even more concerning is that, despite having a rate of imprisonment far greater than other states, the rate of recidivism is not noticeably lower in NSW.

How has NSW reached such a crisis point in its prison system when compared to a state with similar demographics like Victoria?

The problem has been documented for a number of years now. In 2008 the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research conducted a study which showed that from 1993 to 2007, the proportion of people sentenced to prison for most categories of crimes in local NSW courts had increased significantly.

Further research by the same bureau — comparing the startlingly high prison rates in NSW to those in Victoria — concluded that more people go to jail in NSW because more people appear before the courts.

So why such a difference? Well, the cycle of crime in which NSW offenders can get caught bears a striking resemblance to the cycle of knee-jerk politics that has trapped successive NSW governments.

Elections in NSW are won and lost over which party is seen as being toughest on crime and this has generated harsher penalties for crimes and stricter sentencing legislation. When politically unsavoury events which have a criminal component occur, governments in NSW typically respond with another raft of tough new laws.

The most recent example of this are the proposed so-called "bikie" laws. These laws infringe on civil liberties and remove certain provisions for bail and they apply beyond the limited scope of bikie gangs to whatever the court determines to be a "criminal organisation".

Other politically damaging events like the Cronulla riots also led to big changes — like the doubling of the maximum sentence for affray and the removal of the presumption of bail for offenders of this crime.

Furthermore, legislative innovations like the Sentencing Act 1999 (NSW) have been responsible for significantly increasing the length of shorter prison sentences. That act promoted "truth in sentencing" by requiring convicted offenders to serve the fixed term set by the court without the option of remission beyond the initial sentencing.

What is even more damaging is that because of the political necessity to appear tough on crime, NSW governments have also invested very little in alternative measures of sentencing. In other words, evidence-based policy has been passed over in favour of short-term political gains.

In 2008 the NSW Sentencing Council released a report proposing the creation of intensive community correction orders as an alternative to incarceration. This proposal was "considered" by premier Iemma at the time and then quietly ignored.

A lack of investment in non-custodial rehabilitative measures means that even if judges are willing to choose non-custodial sentences, their options are distinctly limited.

Less flexibility within the prison system also means that in-prison rehabilitation programs are suffering from investment shortfalls. In NSW, there is a startling absence of programs for people in custody for short sentences whose prospects of successful rehabilitation are high.

According to the NSW Law Society, measures like periodic detention are also being used less frequently than before. Rates of home detention have also remained comparatively low and in 2004 only 195 people in the entire state were engaged in a home detention program.

The list of alternatives to incarceration that have been proposed and rejected is a long one. For instance, in 2002 the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research released a report recommending the abolition of prison sentences of less than six months. It estimated that if that recommendation were adopted, "The number of new prisoners received in NSW prisons would drop from about 150 per week to about 90 per week, the NSW prison population would be reduced by about 10 per cent, and there would be savings of between $33 million and $47 million per year in the recurrent cost of housing prisoners".

The majority of offenders in jail for less than six months are there for assault, theft, breaches of orders and driving — in other words, for crimes from which there is a reasonable chance of rehabilitation.

Evidence suggests that serious investment in both in-prison and post-prison welfare programs will reduce the rate of repeat offenders. In Canada, for example, it is possible for offenders to be given "conditional sentences". Such sentences strike a balance between incarceration and rehabilitation by restricting liberties with tools like house arrest but also by compelling offenders to engage in community activity to assist in rehabilitation.

As the CJRC makes clear, these programs have shown impressive success rates and cost much less than maintaining an ever-expanding prison population.

Going "soft" on crime won’t win any elections in NSW — at least not yet. But with 57 custodial facilities already in operation in NSW, and many more on the way, it’s going to get a lot harder for voters and pollies alike to ignore the consequences of the "get tough" approach.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.