Earlier this year we published the articles New sentencing laws in NSW and NSW prison population and the new sentencing laws. This article continues that discussion.

NSW sentencing reforms aimed to reduce imprisonment of offenders

New sentencing laws which came into effect in New South Wales in September 2018 have had a significant impact on sentencing outcomes, according to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR).

A major aim of the reforms was to address the growing numbers of offenders sent to jail by focussing on more community-based sentencing options, including enhanced Intensive Corrections Orders (ICOs).

Along with the reforms, Community Corrections, the department tasked with supervising offenders in the community, was given an increase in its budget to offer more community-based programs to address offending behaviours and to reduce the rate of recidivism.

Increase in proportion of offenders receiving community-based sentences

BOCSAR's NSW Criminal Courts Snapshot shows that in the period between 2015 and 2019, there has been a 56% increase in the number of offenders sentenced to supervision in the community.

At the same time there has only been a 1% increase in the number of offenders receiving a custodial penalty (a rise from 12,380 to 12,524).

Significantly, the proportion of offenders receiving community-based sentences since the sentencing reforms have been introduced has increased from 17% in 2018 to 22% in 2019.

This is in line with a decrease in the number of offenders sentenced to jail, which in 2019 was 12,524, compared to 13,470 in 2018.

Statistics show NSW prison population has stabilised

According to BOCSAR's latest report New South Wales Custody Statistics Quarterly Update March 2020, the current numbers of prisoners in NSW gaols as at the end of the March quarter 2020 was a total of 13,525, compared to 13,635 at the end of the December quarter 2019.

From the end of 2018 to March 2020, the timeframe of the introduction of the new sentencing reforms, the prison population has increased by 360.

The current figure of 13,525 (March quarter 2020) is made up of 9,014 people serving sentences and 4,511 on remand.

The December quarter 2018 figure of 13,165 is made up of 8, 579 serving a full-time sentence and 4,586 on remand.

Bail refusals have increased from 8,833 in 2015 to 10,565 in 2019.

In terms of the statistics, it appears that the community-based sentencing options in the form of supervised orders have increased in line with sentencing reforms. At the same time, the prison population has to some extent stabilised.

Whether there will be further benefits from increased correctional resources in the community aimed at rehabilitation, addressing offender's behaviours and reducing recidivism will only be known over time.

Jail for punishment of offenders and safety of society

There is no doubt that serious offenders need to be punished for their crimes and depriving them of their liberty is the most severe form of punishment society condones.

The other aspect of this is that by locking criminals up, particularly dangerous criminals, you are keeping society safe.

Whether our current jail system is the best model for this is up for debate, given what is occurring in other countries, especially Norway. US film maker Michael Moore recently featured the Norway system in one of his documentaries. (Please see Norwegian Prison - Michael Moore).

Until we come up with a better solution, jails will continue to be part of our system.

And it seems we are committing more taxpayer dollars to them.

How much do we spend on locking people up?

In a recent report by the Institute of Public Affairs, Skewed Priorities - Comparing The Growth Of Prison Spending With Police Spending, it was estimated that we are spending $4.4 billion on jails nationwide in response to an incarceration rate that has grown by 29 per cent in ten years.

The report says that over the same period we have spent less on policing and, in WA and the NT, "there are noticeably lower ratios between spending on schools and public hospitals and spending on prisons" (p.7).

This would appear to be at odds with the accepted position that good health and education are generally associated with reduced rates of offending.

Ultimately it may be that reducing incarceration rates and reinvesting that money into rehabilitation programs, education, health and deterrence measures might lead to a safer society.

Police on the street and reduction in rates of crime

One way of increasing deterrence may be to have more police on the streets.

In a recent study by BOCSAR, The effect of police on crime and arrests: Are police deterring or incapacitating criminals? it was found that with an increase in numbers of police there was a reduction in certain crimes.

The study focused on a period between 2002 and 2003 when there was a recruitment drive in the NSW police service which resulted in about 10 extra officers added to each of the state's local area commands. The study was also only limited to property theft.

The study found that with a 1% increase in police numbers there was a 0.8% reduction in theft and a 1.1% reduction in car theft, but no significant reductions in other crimes. This equates to one extra officer helping prevent 17 thefts and 4 car thefts each year.

Interestingly, the study found that more police did not generate more arrests, rather the reductions in theft came from the deterrence factor, rather than taking offenders off the streets.

There is also some suggestion that any additional cost of providing more police is offset by the reduction in crimes and property loss.

Police and the technology at their disposal

Anecdotally there is an argument to make that we already have enough police, including all varieties of law enforcement officers, from council rangers to public transport command.

These services are equipped with the latest technology to identify known offenders and gather evidence (CCTV, DNA and data profiles).

It is this aspect of the growing powers of police that is worrying, particularly to certain groups in our society, namely young people and indigenous communities.

Suspect Targeting Management Plan (STMP)

According to a report by the Youth Justice Coalition, Policing Young People in NSW: A study of the Suspect Targeting Management Plan, the suspect targeting management plan (STMP) used by NSW police has led to "over policing" of indigenous communities.

STMP aims to prevent crime by targeting repeat offenders and people police believe may commit future crimes. Once someone is in the STMP system, police can continually target that individual.

The report found that STMP has been used disproportionally against Aboriginal communities and young people, that it may be harming relations between communities and the police and that there is no evidence to suggest it has led to preventing crime.

Record amounts continue to be spent on jails and imprisonment

It would appear that community-based sentencing options such as ICOs have resulted in a stabilisation of the NSW prison population.

However, we continue to spend record amounts on jails and incarcerating offenders at the expense of other areas of government spending, including policing, hospitals and schools.

There is some evidence that more police can prevent certain crimes, while more funding in health and education could also lead to reductions in crime rates.

We must be careful, though, if we agree to more police on the beat, that it does not diminish our rights or freedoms.

Mark Warren
Criminal law
Stacks Collins Thompson

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