Despite the NSW government’s tough-on-crime stance, increasing investment in police numbers and the expansion in capacity of state correctional facilities, as well as a perception within the community that the streets are getting less safe, crime’s not on the rise in NSW.
NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) figures released last week reveal that all major criminal offences are either in decline or stable across the state. Over the 24 month period ending in September, seven major crime categories had fallen, while the remaining ten were stable.
Those categories in decline include breaking and entering into a dwelling down by 2.9 percent and motor vehicle theft had dropped by 3.2 percent. Stealing from a person had decreased by 8.4 percent and malicious damage to property had fallen by 3.6 percent.
The bureau points out that there’s been a downward spiral in violent offences since 2004, which has stabilised over the last five years. And property offences plummeted over the period 2000 to 2010, after which they continued to decline, but at a slower rate.
Indeed, following the release of state crime statistics in April last year, BOCSAR declared that state crime rates were at their lowest in 40 years. But again, this reality is not reflected in the fearmongering rhetoric of many parliamentarians.
BOCSAR director Dr Don Weatherburn told Sydney Criminal Lawyers® last year that crime began declining in this state at the turn of the century, while over the 20 years prior to that, it had been on the increase.
“For my money, the turning point for major categories of property crime and robbery was the onset of the heroin drought – or if you like, the end of the heroin epidemic,” Dr Weatherburn recalled. “That happened in Christmas 2000.”
But, the doctor also attributes the fall in crime rates to a decrease in youth unemployment and a rise in average weekly earnings over the period 2000 to 2010. And he also pointed to an increase in security technology and more effective policing practices.
And as for the increasing number of inmates in this state, Dr Weatherburn puts that down to the rise in crime rates and tougher government policies during the 80s and 90s. However, since the drop in crime over the last decades, it’s the tough law and order policies driving the rise in prison numbers.
Increasing incarceration rates
The latest BOCSAR custody figures reveal a slight decrease in the NSW prisoner population over the September quarter this year, with 13,372 adult inmates in state correctional facilities. However, if you backtrack over the figures since 2011, there’s been a dramatic spike in inmate numbers.
The June figures showed that the number of prisoners had increased by 4.1 percent over the previous 12 months, with 13,630 adults inside at that time. The number of female prisoners had increased by 50 percent since 2011, while male inmates had increased by 35 percent over that time.
And this policy of locking up ever-increasing amounts of the population is disproportionately affecting First Nations peoples. Currently, 24 percent of adult inmates are Indigenous, while Aboriginal people only account for 2.9 percent of the overall state population.
Build more prisons and fill them up
Instead of considering implementing policies that might divert people from the prison system at a time when overall crime rates are in decline, the NSW Liberal and Nationals government has decided to invest in more prison capacity.
Announced as part of the 2016 budget, a $3.8 billion package is currently funding an extra 7,000 prison beds across the state, which will effectively allow NSW authorities to detain around 50 percent more inmates than they already are.
This funding has covered the re-opening of the Berrima Correctional Facility and expansions at both Wellington prison and Cessnock gaol. It’s also covered the repurposing of a juvenile facility at Lidcombe into a remand centre for adults and the construction of the Illawarra Reintegration Centre.
The jewel in the crown of NSW prison expansion is the Clarence Correctional Centre currently under construction near Grafton. Run by a private consortium that includes Serco, the facility will have the capacity to lockup 1,700 inmates once it’s completed in mid-2020.
A massive spike in policing
And in a time of dwindling crime and increasing prison space, it’s probably best to have extra police on hand to help with the rise in demand for inmates. Last month, the Berejiklian government revealed its investing in the largest increase in NSW police numbers in more than 30 years.
Just four months out from a state election, premier Gladys Berejiklian announced this tough-on-crime measure, which involves her government investing $583 million in taxpayers’ money to fund an extra 1,500 police officers, as “safety and security” is the “highest priority”.
In a media release, the premier points out that “NSW has some of the lowest crime rates in 20 years” and she goes onto say that the extra 1,500 officers “will be able to meet future crime challenges head on”, which seems a slim justification considering recent trends.
Alternatives are out there
“When the data shows that crime is going down, we must reassess money this government has committed to funding their flawed law and order agenda,” NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge stated in a press release.
The Greens justice spokesperson further said that the recent BOCSAR figures should trigger a “radical rethink” of the billions of dollars that are being spent on extra policing, longer court lists and extra prison beds. And he pointed to the need to invest in alternative approaches to crime.
Justice reinvestment is one such approach. It’s an initiative that diverts funding away from incarceration, and into early intervention, crime prevention and diversionary programs. It enables communities to introduce locally tailored strategies that address the underlying drivers of crime.
Since 2013, Just Reinvest NSW has been running the nation’s first major justice reinvestment project in Bourke. A KMPG assessment report released last month reveals the project has made a positive impact in terms of family strength, youth development and adult empowerment.
Justice Reinvest NSW chair Sarah Hopkins explained last year that it’s about reducing offending, creating safer communities and making a better investment. “There’s real promise for justice reinvestment, as a framework, to be rolled out across not only NSW, but Australia,” she said.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.