Imprisonment Does Not Reduce Crime: An Interview with UNSW Professor Eileen Baldry

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Eileen Baldry

NSW is about to reach its highest incarceration rate for the past century. This week, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) released the state’s latest custody statistics, which show that at the end of March the adult prison population in NSW was 12,955 inmates.

This is an increase of 13 percent over the previous two years.

However, this coincides with a drop in crime. NSW crime rates are at their lowest for the past 40 years. The rates of most major categories of crime have fallen or remained steady over the two year period ending December last year.

Remand inmates

The BOCSAR figures reveal that 59 percent of the increase in inmates is attributed to inmates on remand – those that have been refused bail and are awaiting the finalisation of their court dates. Over the last 12 months, the rate of unsentenced prisoners has risen by 6.3 percent.

A large portion of remand inmates ultimately have their cases dropped or thrown out of court. And yet, their lives are turned upside down, the damage done, as they languishing in prison for months, or sometimes even years.

Indigenous incarceration

There’s a huge over-representation of Indigenous people in the NSW prison system.

In March, there were 3,166 Indigenous adults in NSW prisons. This accounts for around 25 percent of the prison population, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only account for 2.5 percent of the overall NSW population.

Since 2011, there’s been a 35 percent increase of First Nations peoples being detained in the NSW prison system. And the rate of Indigenous inmates on remand is also on the increase. Over the last year, there was an 11.4 percent increase in these numbers.

Build more prisons and fill them up

The Coalition government’s answer to the soaring incarceration rate is to build more prisons and make more room. The state government has allocated $3.8 billion to fund an extra 7,000 beds in NSW prisons.

The funding covers the re-opening of Berrima Correctional Facility and two rapid-build expansions at Wellington and Cessnock prisons. It’s also covering the construction of the Mary Wade Correctional Facility in Lidcombe and the Illawarra Reintegration Centre in Unanderra.

And construction on Australia’s biggest prison is set to begin later this year in northern NSW. The privately-run Grafton Correctional Facility is being built by a consortium of four companies and will have the capacity to detain 1,700 prisoners.

Revolving door

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. Seventy nine percent of people who were convicted of an offence in 2004, had been reconvicted of another offence by 2014.

A recently released report by the NSW auditor general found that NSW gaols are failing to deliver on rehabilitation programs for inmates. Seventy five percent of inmates who accessed these programs were not given a chance to complete them before release.

UNSW Professor of Criminology Eileen Baldry has been at the forefront of research into the NSW prison system for the past 15 years. Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with the professor about a system, which is beginning to mirror that of the United States: the greatest incarcerator on earth.

Prison rates are currently soaring in NSW, however, rates of crime are in decline. How should we account for this?

In my view, this is entirely political and ideological. Some people might falsely connect increased prisoner numbers with decreasing crime. But that’s not the case. Nowhere in the world is there evidence that increases or decreases in prisoner populations equate to decreases or increases in crime.

That’s the first thing to be clear about.

That means the reason to increase the prisoner population is the false beliefs that politicians have. One, that prisons work to keep the community safe, and two, that the community believes that putting more people in prison keeps them safer.

Tied to that is the belief of all politicians that by promising people that they will be safer – because they’re locking more people up – this is something that will get them elected, or re-elected.

You can see that in Victoria, where the current opposition is saying, “Why on earth is the government spending money on social services, when in fact they should be spending it on law and order.”

So it’s the old law and order approach.

You’ve stated that the current policing approach in NSW will only lead to the prisoner population continuing to rise at this rapid rate.

What is it about the approach of NSW police that is so detrimental?

There’s a number of things. One is that police tend to target people who are more visible and more easily arrested.

You may have heard today in Queensland that an Aboriginal man, who is seriously ill, was picked up driving without a licence. And he was found to have a number of traffic offences piling up, and therefore he was committed to a 15 month prison sentence for a series of driving offences – none of which had occasioned bodily harm.

This is a very typical case, particularly with Aboriginal people across Australia. In NSW, there are high numbers being targeted by the police and imprisoned for fairly minor offences.

There are a number of key things to remember.

Ninety five percent of the people who flow in and out of prisons in a year come through the magistrate’s court – they are not indictable offences, so they will only get a month or two sentence. This is what targeting street offences and minor offending is doing.

Secondly, police are absolutely central to refusing of bail. Now, the increasing remand population is a big aspect of the increase in the prisoner population. So if you look at what the percentage is on a given day, it’s something like a quarter of full-time prisoners in NSW prisons are on remand.

When you look at it on a flow population basis over a year, it’s almost double the number that you have in the census. For the 13,000 people in prison today, the number who will be flowing in and out of prison over a year, will be something like 20,000.

Now a huge proportion of them will have been on remand, and about half the remandees when they finally get to court are not given a further prison sentence.

This is almost entirely to do with the police. The police are very active in advising the magistrate to refuse bail. That is a big contributor to the increase in the prison population.

Another aspect is prison is criminogenic. That is the biggest signifier of going into prison is having been in prison before. As we know, between 40 and 50 percent of people who are in prison today, have been their previously over the last two years.

This is another aspect of policing. There is an active targeting of known offenders. And one of the fastest growing areas of offences is what’s called “against justice,” which basically is breaching. So someone has not committed a further offence as such, but they may have breached an order, or not stayed at the address that they were supposed to stay at.

Something like 10 percent – and it’s growing – of the prisoner population are in for that. That’s also due to policing. Because police target this group of people because they’re obvious, and they’re easy to arrest.

There’s that large portion of people being held on remand, who eventually are released with no sentence. Does coming into contact with the prison system make it more likely these individuals will end up in prison again?

Yes indeed, because just having contact with the criminal justice system makes it more likely that you will have contact in the future. And this is for a number of reasons.

Firstly, you become known to the police. Secondly, all of the research that I and other people have done, shows that it’s the most disadvantaged, poorest, unemployed and homeless people who end up in prison. There’s a very small percentage – 10-15 percent of people – who go into prison that are not in this disadvantaged group.

What that means is even just being on remand, further disrupts any connection that they might have had with a house, or with people.

The other thing that is associated with the work I’ve done, more than half the people who go in and out of prison have mental health disorders, cognitive disabilities or some kind of disability that makes their lives more difficult.

They are far more likely when they get out, even from remand, to not have anywhere stable to go to and to not have some kind of therapeutic support, or service that they need. So they’re more likely to end up going back into prison.

What becomes the case is, it’s normalised. Being in prison and being in contact with the police is normalised for this group.

The state government has allocated $3.8 billion to fund an extra 7,000 beds in NSW prisons. What will be the result of the government investing in a greater capacity for the state’s prisons?

The evidence over the last four decades has been that the more prison beds that you have, the more poor, disadvantage or Aboriginal people you lock up. So this is not about targeting those who are the big drug importers, or white collar criminals who rip millions of dollars off people.

It’s about targeting the same group that have been targeted before and increasing the level of people who then cycle around in the prison population.

If the government wants to see what the result of their prison building approach is, they just have to look at the United States. We’re nowhere near the rate that the United States has, but there was a time when the United States was down at 200 inmates per 100,000 people, which is where NSW is at the moment.

The US instituted the kind of policies that the NSW government has decided to institute: build lots more prisons, have partnerships with private providers, increase policing, decrease social, mental health and disability support in the community for the most disadvantaged, and your prisons become full.

You were one of the authors of the 2015 UNSW report: Indigenous Australians with Mental Health Disorders and Cognitive Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System.

What’s actually happening to Indigenous people who have mental health issues within the Australian criminal justice system?

The first thing to say is that they, at a much higher rate than non-Indigenous Australians, are managed by the police, instead of being supported by disability and mental health services.

It’s often seen to be the case that prison is the best place for them because there’s nothing else for them in the community. That is just outrageous. If it happened in a middle class suburb in Sydney, people would be completely outraged.

The second thing goes back to what I was saying about prison and being managed by the police – the prison becomes normalised. This happens much earlier in the lives of Aboriginal people, usually, when they are a teenager or young person.

Therefore the difficulty for that young Aboriginal person to break out of that cycle, when they have mental health issues, is almost impossible because there is nothing in the community to support them. And their community people and their families just don’t have the resources. You need disability services to assist you.

This then becomes a way of managing this group of people, who have mental and cognitive disabilities. The police manage them and cycle them in and out of prison, as a place to contain them.

A recently released report by the NSW auditor general found that 75 percent of inmates who accessed rehabilitation programs were not given a chance to complete them before their release.

Why is this the case? And what sort of outcomes is it going to lead to?

It is very important for prisons to provide programs and rehabilitation services while someone is in prison. But, the majority of people are in prison for less than twelve months. So they’re either on remand or they’re on short sentences. And like I said earlier, when you look at the flow population, rather than the census population, you see that.

There’s a significant amount of what Americans call “churning.”

So for people who are going in and out of prison quickly, of course, they don’t have time to finish a program. And it would be completely unconscionable, in fact, it would be a breach of human rights, to keep someone in prison longer, so that they could finish a program.

What needs to happen here is a somewhat different approach. And that is, a very close alliance between prison programs, and similar programs within the community.

So for example, someone starts a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in prison. They get to do half of it, or they mightn’t get to start it because the prison authorities say, “You’re only in here for six months.”

What can and should happen is that a person could start there, but there is the same sort of program in the community where that person can go, be referred to and have a support person go along with them. There are people in the community who are willing to do this and there are a number of programs that do it.

But it is absolutely no good to provide programs in prison and then have nothing post release, because prison is a completely abnormal environment. It’s not your normal community.

So you can do a program and be seen to be doing well in the program – in anger management or drug and alcohol – but, then you get out and you are faced with all the same things that you were facing before you went into prison, which are your mental health state, your homelessness, or if it’s a woman, you’re facing domestic violence.

All of these things suddenly face you when you walk out the door, and they were not facing you inside. You’ve had somewhere to stay and three meals a day. You had some access to regular healthcare if it was needed.

Despite the fact that prisons are horrible places to be, nevertheless, people who were in prison and doing some kind of program, to then be released to what is almost inevitably a far more chaotic and far less stable community situation, they need assistance to continue the rehabilitative work that they might have started.

And it needs to be in the community with all of the things that face you in the community. Because that’s what might have brought you down before. You need the capacity when you’re living in the community to manage your life in a way which isn’t offending and also, which is mentally healthy.

You were recently involved in a study of an ACT pilot post release program for inmates, called Throughcare. What sort of outcomes it is producing?

The outcomes are very encouraging. It’s something like 38 percent over two years had gone back to prison, whereas the comparison group prior to the program starting had something like 55-56 percent go back.

That’s a significant improvement. And it does a whole range of things. It saves a huge amount of money. The Throughcare program cost something like $5,000 per person, but to lock somebody up for a year costs $120,000.

Financially, it’s terrific. Socially it’s excellent, because it means that person begins to link better into the community, their social skills are increased and they get support in independent living.

The things that are hardest though are housing and employment. At least in the ACT, there was work with government and community housing providers to try and assist that. But employment is extremely difficult and so it’s something that they’ve got to work on.

But on the whole, it makes a huge difference.

And lastly professor Baldry, what do you believe the NSW government needs to do in order to curb a situation where it is incarcerating a growing amount of the population, which in effect produces a higher amount of revolving door prisoners?

They need to draw back immediately from the huge commitment of $3.8 billion. I know they have already committed to the new Grafton prison, which is already underway. But no more.

And then there’s a number of things.

One, is to put even a quarter of that amount of money that was going to be spent on prisons into the kind of community support that every single research piece around the world has shown to be the case – that you have supportive case management, that you provide support for people with mental and cognitive disabilities to keep them out of prisons – you would halve the prison population tomorrow.

You would kept most of the people who have mental illness and cognitive disability out of prison, if you provided better support in the community.

The other side of this is that the government needs to come clean on what evidence they have that building more prisons and investing $3.8 billion improves community safety, reduces crime, and means that people come out of prison better than when they went in. Because all of those things are the opposite at the moment.

There is nowhere in the world that shows that increasing the prisoner population actually makes any of those things happen.

So I think the government needs to be upfront. They’re always talking about evidence-based policy and this is a no evidence-based policy, just increasing the prisoner population. It’s feeding an industry and it’s feeding an increasingly privatised industry.

And it creates what we call a vicious cycle, rather than a virtuous cycle.

Professor Baldry thanks very much for taking the time out to speak with us today. And best of luck with your continuing research that’s redefining the way we approach incarceration.

You’re welcome.

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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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