Australia: NSW prison population and the new sentencing laws – an update

Last Updated: 5 August 2019
Article by Mark Warren

In October 2018 we published the article New sentencing laws in NSW – practical information for criminal lawyers and their clients. The new sentencing regime has now been in operation for nearly a year in New South Wales. Has it reduced prison numbers?

Changes to sentencing laws intended to reduce prison population in NSW

When the new sentencing laws were introduced in September 2018, the state government hoped that one of the major outcomes would be to address the growing prison population.

In July 2018 the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) reported that prisoner numbers in NSW (both prisoners held on remand and serving sentences) were at an all-time high of 13,630 and expected to grow to 14,200 by June 2019. (See NSW Custody Statistics: Quarterly update June 2018.)

But it seems that this prediction may not have come to fruition, with the most recent custody statistics showing the number of adults in NSW jails in March this year to be 13,466. (See NSW Custody Statistics: Quarterly Update March 2019.)

This may suggest that prisoner numbers could be starting to stabilise.

How much is this due to the new sentencing regime?

Renewed focus on Intensive Correction Orders (ICO) under new sentencing laws

One of the features of the new sentencing laws was a renewed focus on community-based sentences like Intensive Correction Orders (ICO), rather than sentencing offenders to short-term prison sentences (less than six months).

ICOs have been around for a while and are an alternative to full time custody. On an ICO an offender is supervised by Community Corrections for the term of the order. Offenders can be subject to a wide range of conditions, including completing community service work, home detention, electronic monitoring or complying with a curfew.

Community-based sentencing far cheaper and more effective in rehabilitating offenders

It is the overall cost to the community and its success rate that makes the ICO a preferred option to full-time custody in certain circumstances.

It's been estimated that ICOs cost the taxpayer a fraction of what it costs to keep someone in full time custody. In 2013 the Productivity Commission estimated that the cost of keeping someone in jail was $292.51 per day, compared to $28.75 per day for someone who is supervised in the community.

As well, it has been found that community-based sentencing is far more successful in rehabilitating offenders by addressing the causes of their offending behaviour and therefore reducing the likelihood of re-offending. In comparison there is little evidence to suggest that a short-term jail sentence actually reduces the likelihood of people re-offending. (See Intensive correction orders versus short prison sentence: A comparison of re-offending.)

Has there been an increase in ICOs being imposed instead of short-term prison sentences?

Anecdotally the answer to this question is probably yes, but we are still waiting for the exact numbers to be published.

There is some interesting data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which is worth reviewing. (See 4512.0 – Corrective Services, Australia, March quarter 2019.)

The ABS has found that in the March quarter of 2019, the Australian prison population numbered 43,320 people, a 1.3% increase on the December 2018 quarter and a 2.9% increase on the previous March quarter in 2018.

Interestingly, the statistics show that in the March quarter of 2019, there were 75,544 people engaged in community-based corrections, an increase of 2.9% on the December 2018 quarter and a 9.5% increase on the previous year's March quarter.

ABS statistics point to nationwide trend towards community-based sentencing

This would suggest at least that more people are being sentenced to community-based corrections rather than full-time jail. The report does indicate that NSW's new sentencing regime has contributed to this increase. It would also suggest that there is a nationwide trend towards the community-based approach.

In terms of the figures, NSW contributed the most people on community-based orders, being 25,712 or 34%, followed by Queensland with 20,976 or 28% and then Victoria with 13,339 or 18% of the total.

More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on community-based orders

The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on community-based orders increased by 12% to 16,016 on the previous March 2018 quarter.

The report says that these results can be linked to the of the new Community Correction Orders and Conditional Release Orders being introduced in NSW.

More women being sentenced to community-based orders

It also appears that more women are being sentenced to these community-based orders compared to men. Since the March quarter of 2014, the number of females serving these sentences has increased by 44% or 4,480 persons, compared to a 34% increase (15,380) in the male population.

It would appear then, from these figures at least, that the new sentencing regime in NSW has had an impact on prisoner numbers and that there are more community-based sentences being imposed.

Mark Warren
Criminal law
Stacks Collins Thompson

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