Just days after the NSW Government announced it will pour $3.8 million into more correctional services facilities to address overcrowding in the state’s prisons, the Department of Justice has kicked-off a massive state-wide recruitment drive.
“The largest recruitment drive in correctional services history”, says the organisation’s Facebook page. It has announced that more than 1400 new recruits are needed for the state’s 35 correctional centres, plus over 100 community corrections officers for the government’s Better Prisons program.
The social media post says new recruits will undertake 10 weeks of “some of the world’s finest operational corrective services training”, as well as a nationally recognised certificate court, and once employed will have access to ongoing mentoring and development programs.
More inmates in Australia than ever before
It is a sad fact that there are more prisoners in in Australia than ever before.
In NSW alone, more than 12,000 adults are currently behind bars – well exceeding capacity – and the problem of overcrowding is getting worse, with the number predicted to reach 18,000 by 2020 if current trends continue.
The surge in the prison population, which grew by 9% between 2015 and 2016 alone, has been attributed to tough new bail laws, new offences, underfunded courts which have tremendous backlogs, aggressive policing and tougher sentencing.
There are about 3800 inmates currently on remand in New South Wales – people who have not been convicted of any crime but are awaiting trial in prison. A good number of them will have their cases withdrawn or thrown out of court, but until then, they will need to stay behind bars – for all practical intents and purposes presumed guilty until their cases are finalised.
Throwing money at the problem
The funding announced in the state budget last week is comprised $2.2 billion in capital works and $1.6 billion in recurrent funding over four years.
More than 2800 extra prison beds will be delivered within three years, including 620 at Cessnock, 160 at South Coast and 135 at the reopened Berrima and Wollongong correctional centres.
Business plans will be developed for expanding existing prisons across the State to increase capacity by about 4200 beds by around 2021.
Funding is also targeted at rehabilitation programs to reduce reoffending.
About 46% of NSW inmates return to prison within two years. To combat this problem, more than $200 million has been earmarked to make rehabilitation programs compulsory for offenders serving six months prison or less.
Funding will also go towards 345 psychologists, community corrections officers and other skilled staff to work with repeat offenders and domestic violence offenders.
Extra money will also go to fund housing and employment programs.
The need for alternatives
But law reformists and experts working in the criminal justice system argue the funding is being wasted, and that much more should be done to divert offenders from prison, because research makes it clear that “one of the strongest predictors of going to prison is having been in prison before.”
Diversionary programs have been highly successful in a number of overseas countries at reducing crime rates and reoffending rates. In the Netherlands for example, many prisons are now empty and part of that success story can be attributed to the fact that the country focuses on support programs to help offenders get out of the cycle of crime. The country has also adopted ‘tracking devices’ for many offenders rather than locking them up, and treats many drug offences as a symptom of drug addiction, which means users are diverted to health programs rather than sent to prison.
In Sweden too, there is a similar attitude towards handling minor drug offences which takes a large weight off the criminal justice system, from policing, through the court process, and the prison facilities themselves.
While the Corrective Services Facebook page says that some of the staff it seeks will be needed for its Better Prisons Program, that program has come under heavy criticism itself. The government recently cut the number of teachers working in prisons, which has left prisoner advocacy groups questioning whether the State really is committed to ensuring that inmates are given real opportunities to turn their lives around.
And while ‘tough on crime’ laws tend to win votes, they are not financially costly and do nothing to reduce crime and reoffending rates.