The NSW inmate population is at an all-time high. In June this year, there were 13,092 inmates being held in our state’s correctional facilities, according to NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) figures.
4,309 of these full-time adult prisoners were on remand: meaning they were refused bail and awaiting the finalisation of their cases. So, close to a third of the NSW inmate population is unsentenced, and many of these people will have their charges withdrawn or thrown out of court.
A significant body of research has found that those who are imprisoned are far more likely to return after release. In NSW, recidivism rates are around 48 percent, which means close to half of all inmates return to prison within 24 months of leaving.
With such high numbers of inmates held on remand, the NSW prison system is potentially creating its very own revolving door prisoners, who might never have otherwise come into contact with the system if they hadn’t been charged or refused bail initially.
Building more prisons
NSW continues to be the greatest incarcerator of all Australian states and territories. This is despite overall crime rates in our state being at their lowest in forty years. Over the 24 months ending in December last year, most major categories of crime had either fallen or remained steady.
Despite this, NSW is gearing up for more people behind bars. Currently, the state government is investing $3.8 billion to fund an extra 7,000 inmate beds, which will allow for a more than 50 percent increase in the state’s capacity to detain people who are accused or convicted of crimes.
The government is intent on building more correctional facilities, even though research has shown they exert no strong deterrent effect.
But recent developments in alternatives to full-time custodial sentences are producing positive outcomes. A recently released BOCSAR report has found that intensive correction orders (ICO) have resulted in re-offending rates being reduced by up to 31 percent.
Alternative to prison
The use of ICOs in NSW commenced in October 2010 at the same time that periodic detention, or weekend, detention, was abolished by the government. The stated aim of the new measure was to achieve a reduction in re-offending of 10 percent by 2016.
ICOs allow offenders, who are assessed as suitable, to serve sentences of less than 2 years imprisonment in intensive correction within the community, under the supervision and monitoring of Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW).
An eligible offender has to be over 18 years of age, and they must not be convicted of a prescribed sexual offence, as set out in section 66 of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999.
There are three mandatory conditions for ICOs that offenders must comply with. These include undertaking a minimum of 32 hours of community work a month, participating in rehabilitation programs as directed by CSNSW and submitting to drug and alcohol testing at work and program sites.
A sentencing court may impose additional conditions regarding employment, the use of alcohol, electronic monitoring, amongst others.
Released last Friday, the BOCSAR report compared the reconviction rates of 1,266 people who were given ICOs and 10,660 who received short prison sentences. The groups were matched on a range of factors, including age, gender, race, category of offence and prior criminal record in order to reduce the impact of such variables on the sentencing outcomes.
The researchers found an 11 to 31 percent reduction “in the odds of re-offending for an offender who received an ICO compared with an offender who received a prison sentence of up to 24 months.”
When it came to those given a fixed prison terms of 6 months or less, the results showed an even greater disparity.
In comparing these ‘short sentence’ inmates with those serving ICOs, BOCSAR found that those receiving an ICO were between 25 and 43 percent less likely to re-offend across all risk categories. And when considering medium to high-risk categories, those on an ICO are between 33 to 35 percent less likely.
According to the researchers, this is largely attributable to the fact that those who have served short sentences are then released unconditionally into the community with no ongoing supervision or post-release treatment.
Reduction in high-risk re-offending
The BOCSAR researchers cite the findings of the 2011 Washington State Institute Public Policy report What Works in Community Supervision to support their findings regarding the effectiveness of supervised community orders.
Researcher Elizabeth Drake found that intensive supervision that focuses only upon surveillance has no real impact on re-offending rates. But when intensive supervision is combined with treatment programs, re-offending is reduced by about 10 percent.
These reductions were even greater – up to 16 percent – amongst moderate to high-risk offenders when a risk-needs-responsivity approach to supervision was taken. This is a more tailored approach to supervision and treatment determined by risk level.
Drastic need for greater use of ICOs
The BOCSAR researchers assert that the need for alternative sentences in NSW is “drastic”, especially given the effectiveness of supervision and the growth in the prison population. The reported noted there are large numbers of inmates being detained on sentences that are less than 2 years, who may be suitable for ICOs.
A 2016 NSW Sentencing Commission statutory review found that ICOs are underutilised in our state, and they’re not uniformly applied, especially in more remote areas where resources and infrastructure may not support such orders.
Taking into account that almost half the inmates sentenced to prison terms of 2 years or less are serving 6 months or less, the greater use of ICOs would appear to have positive economic and social benefits for the community, particularly given that many short term prisoners are simply released into the community with no post-release supports.
“ICOs are more effective than short prison sentences in addressing underlying causes of offending behaviour and reducing recidivism rates,” the BOCSAR researchers found, adding that the greater utilisation of the sentence “would have a significant impact on the imprisonment growth rate in NSW.”
When you consider the obscene Indigenous incarceration rate in NSW, the potential benefits of alternatives to full-time imprisonment are magnified.
The numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being held behind bars in state has increased by 25 percent since 2013.
In June, there were 3,149 First Nations people imprisoned in NSW. This accounts for 24 percent of the inmate population, whilst Indigenous people make up less than 3 percent of the overall population.
A BOCSAR report from June found that the number of Indigenous people being incarcerated statewide could be reduced by up to 500 a year if those given short prison sentences for certain key offences were instead sentenced to ICOs.
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.