Crime and Incarceration: An interview with BOCSAR director Dr Don Weatherburn

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Dr Don Weatherburn

NSW crime rates are at their lowest in over forty years, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) figures revealed last month. Crime across most of NSW was found to have either declined or remained stable in most major categories over the two year period ending December last year.

However, studies have shown that most Australians have the misperception that crime is on the rise.

Meanwhile, the NSW incarceration rate is at an all-time high. BOCSAR custody statistics released last week outline that at the end of March this year, the adult prison population in this state was 12,955 inmates.

Recidivism rates in NSW are close to 50 percent, meaning that almost half the people behind bars, return to prison within two years of release.

Fifty nine percent of the recent increase in the state’s inmates is attributed to prisoners on remand – those refused bail and waiting for their cases to be finalised.

With many of these inmates eventually being released, it means that the NSW prison system is potentially producing its own revolving door prisoners.

The cost of incarceration

The state government’s answer to these ever-increasing incarceration numbers is to build more prisons. They’re investing $3.8 billion to fund an extra 7,000 beds, which is an almost 50 percent increase in the capacity of NSW correctional facilities.

The funding covers the re-opening of the Berrima Correctional Facility and expansions at Cessnock and Wellington prisons. It’s also covering the construction of two new gaols at Lidcombe and Unanderra.

The construction of Australia’s largest prison is set to begin in northern NSW later this year. The privately-run Grafton Correctional Facility will have the capacity to detain 1,700 prisoners.

It costs around $106,580 on average to detain an Australian prisoner for a year. This means it’s currently costing the state around $1.38 billion a year to incarcerate those behind bars. But with an increase of 7,000 beds, it will be costing NSW taxpayers an extra $746 million a year.

The bureau

But these figures don’t fall out of the sky. In NSW, BOCSAR is the government agency that is charged with collecting the state’s crime statistics and undertaking research into crime. It plays a key role in assisting policy makers and administrators in the NSW criminal justice system, in an effort to reduce crime.

BOCSAR director Dr Don Weatherburn has been at the helm since 1988. The doctor first joined the bureau in 1983, as their senior research officer. So he’s been at frontline of the trends that have been occurring in the state’s criminal justice system for over three decades.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with Dr Don Weatherburn about the reasons behind the state’s declining crime rates, the rising incarceration rate, and the continuing tough on crime approach of authorities.

Firstly, Dr Weatherburn, how does the bureau go about collecting all your data?

There’s three different answers to that question.

The data on crime. Every crime report and every arrest comes to the bureau. We download that from the police computer. So these are the individual records, not stats. Every time, we get the original reports.

The second thing, is every time someone turns up in court – whether it be Children’s, Magistrates’, District, Supreme – we get details of the appearance.

And the third one, is every time someone goes into adult or juvenile custody, we get details of the individual records of the person that’s going in.

You’ve actually been with BOCSAR since 1983, which means you’ve been working with this data for 34 years.

Oh mate, don’t rub it in.

In that time, what would you say the major trends in crime have been in this state?

Between 1982 and 2000, practically everything went up. And then from 2000, most, but not everything, went down.

The things that are currently going up are methamphetamine and cocaine use. They’re some of the exceptions to the general rule.

But that’s the general picture.

What do you attribute this drop in crime to?

That’s a subject of huge dispute. 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.

That happened in Christmas 2000. The price of heroin went from $20 a cap, which was 80 percent pure, to something like 60 bucks a cap, which was 20 percent pure. And immediately, crime started falling. People started migrating into methadone treatment. The overdose rate fell by two thirds.

I don’t think that’s the only factor though. I think that there’s a few other things that went on. Between 2000 and 2010, the youth unemployment rate dropped and average weekly earnings rose.

On top of that, you’ve got increased security. Cars have all got engine immobilisers. A lot of houses have alarms.

So I don’t think it’s any one factor. Police have got better. Their clear-up rates have gone up. There’s a whole combination of things.

This drop in crime coincides with a surge in prison numbers. In your opinion, what’s leading to this ever-increasing prison population?

Well, first let me correct you. The imprisonment rate in NSW, and in Australia generally, has been going up almost without exception since the 1970s. It didn’t start going up when crime went down. It was going up through the 80s and 90s.

Every now and then, it would level out and then keep going up again.

So what’s caused this? I think in the period between 1980 and 2000, it was pushed up first by increasing crime rates, which led to increasing arrest rates. And then when successive governments got tougher on crime, it was being pushed up by tougher law and order policies.

In the period up to 2000, it was a combination of increasing crime, and tough law and order policies. In the period after 2000, it was just the tougher law and order policies.

And so they just continued on with that tough on crime stance?

Yeah. They kept acting as if crime rates hadn’t gone down. The political parties competed with each other to get tough on crime. So, there was a growth in the percentage of people bail refused. A growth in the percentage of people given a gaol sentence, and in many cases increases in the length of sentence.

The state government has budgeted $3.8 billion to fund an extra 7,000 prison beds.

What do you think the effect of broadening prison capacity to cater for almost 50 percent more inmates, than there presently are, is going to have on the NSW community?

There’s two things here. You can’t stop the growth in the prison population over night. And it’s cruel and inhumane to keep squeezing people into the same amount of space. So I think in the first instance, it’s entirely understandable that a government might want to build sufficient numbers of prisons to avert serious unrest in the prison system.

So far as prison itself as a means of crime control is concerned, it has an effect, but it’s not a terribly strong one. The best of the evidence suggests that a 10 percent increase in the prison population gets you about a 1.5 percent reduction in crime.

But there’s US research indicating that you get less and less reduction in crime if the prison population gets bigger and bigger. And the reason for that is, when you start off, the people you are bringing into prison are high-rate offenders.

But as the prison system expands, you tend to be bringing in less and less high-rate offenders, and more and more people with insubstantial criminal records. So you get less and less incapacitation effect.

There are, on the other hand, a whole bunch of community-based options that are effective in reducing reoffending, which the government is also pursuing.

So the prison population at the moment is levelling off. We’ll just have to wait and see whether it continues to level off. It may not be necessary to spend all this money on prisons if the prison population stops rising.

Politicians are behind the moves to expand the state’s prison capacity. Yet, there is that increasing evidence from around the world that suggests prisons don’t lower crimes rates.

Why do you think politicians in this state are continuing down this path?

Because most people in the general community think prison does stop crime. So you’ve got a massive problem with public ignorance about what’s effective in crime control. And you’ve also got people who couldn’t give a darn about crime control. They want offenders punished.

It’s not like health where the public wants the same thing the government wants, which is better health outcomes. The only issue there is how much to spend.

But in law and order, you’ve got a big constituency who are not so much interested in crime control, as they are in punishment. I think that’s the main reason.

So they’re pandering to the will of the constituents?

Well, if you want to stay in office, it’s hard to avoid. But you can do it.

The last person who made big efforts was Tony Blair, who had his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” approach.

And governments differ. Usually they try behind the scenes to do more to reduce reoffending and rehabilitation.

But in Australia, it’s pretty much a zero-sum game in the sense that the moment any government – it doesn’t matter what colour – makes a statement that could be interpreted as soft on crime, the other side of politics jumps on them. So it’s a lose-lose situation.

A recent BOCSAR report revealed that the number of prisoners aged 45 and above is on the increase. There was an almost 200 percent increase in older people being detained from 7.2 percent in 1982 to 21.1 percent in 2014.

What would you put this increase in older people being incarcerated down to?

There’s a couple of things. The main this is what’s called the age specific rate of offending. That is to say, the rate of offending by different age groups is changing.

The age specific rate of offending among young people is actually falling, and has been falling for quite a while.

But the age specific rate of offending among the older age groups hasn’t changed. It’s the same as it ever was. And so, younger people are actually dropping out of the justice system, leaving it with old people.

That’s what’s happening. Plus the fact that you’ve got more people in for life now. Life means life these days. In years gone by, a person given a life sentence could expect to be out in 10 to 15 years. But now, if you get a life sentence, you’re in there until you die.

And of course, there’s a massive over-representation of Indigenous prisoners in the NSW prison system. Indigenous people account for around 25 percent of the prison population, but only 2.5 percent of the overall NSW population.

What is it about the NSW criminal justice system that’s leading to this situation?

Well, it’s not just about the NSW criminal justice system. You’ve got very high rates of crime in Aboriginal communities, particularly violence. It’s a huge problem in Aboriginal communities right around Australia.

So that’s part of the problem. And lying behind that of course is alcohol.

But, it’s also the case that the justice system has got a lot tougher on crime, particularly assault. And it’s not hard to guess who’s going to lose out if you’ve got a community that has high rates of violence and they get tougher on crime. You’re going to get an increase in Aboriginal over-representation and that’s exactly what’s happened.

That’s part of it. Another part of it though, is that the justice system has got a lot tougher on people who breach community-based orders and the breach rate for Aboriginal people is higher than for non-Aboriginal people, again increasing their rate of detention.

But, you know, the obvious thing is to deal with the root cause of the problem, not just simply respond by locking more people up.

And lastly, Dr Weatherburn going back to your 34 years. Having dealt with all of these crime statistics for so long, what would you say they reveal to you about the state of our society today?

All I can say is that I never expect for a second to see the substantial drop in crime that happened since 2000. I never expected to be able to say that your chances of being burgled, robbed or having your car stolen are lower now, than they were in the 1970s.

That is the biggest surprise of all to me.

Dr Weatherburn thanks for taking the time out to have this very informative chat with us today.

Pleasure mate, pleasure.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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