The NSW government has decided to axe a rehabilitation program which has proven to be highly successful in addressing underlying issues and reducing reoffending.
The Court Referral of Eligible Defendants into Treatment program (‘CREDIT’) has run on a trial basis in Tamworth and Burwood Local Court since 2009, offering defendants support and treatment to divert them away from the cycle of crime.
Under the program, defendants are offered access to a broad range of services such as housing support, drug and alcohol treatment, debt repayment services, counselling for mental health and literacy programs.
There are around 60 participants in the Tamworth program at any one time, run by three staff members using existing court resources. Those who demonstrate “quantifiable, verifiable evidence” of positive change are provided with a report which can help them to avoid prison.
Reoffending and Government Policy
Reoffending is a major contributor to the growing prison population in NSW.
Around 48% of NSW inmates return to prison within two years – the worst rate of reoffending in Australia.
To address the situation, the NSW government presented a set of 31 performance targets in 2015, aiming to reduce adult offending by 5% within 4 years. And last April, newly appointed Corrective Services Minister David Elliott said “I want prisoners to leave jail punished, literate and drug-free.”
These announcements came shortly after the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) called for a complete overhaul of the way crime is dealt with in our State. BOCSAR head Dr Don Weatherburn slammed the state’s “tough on crime” approach, citing statistics which show it has contributed to the spike in our prison population. Weatherburn highlighted the fact that although crime rates have steadily decreased since 2001, the prison population continues to rise, with the 2016 NSW prison population being 12% higher than the corresponding period in 2015.
BOCSAR attributes the rise to tougher bail laws, increased maximum penalties, mandatory sentencing laws and the government’s reduction in funding to programs which address the underlying causes of crime.
Government cuts to support services and diversionary programs appears to be inconsistent with its stated aim of reducing reoffending.
Effectiveness of CREDIT
Tamworth Magistrate Roger Prowse has called the CREDIT program “the most effective court-based intervention program I’ve seen.”
An evaluation by BOCSAR in 2012 found near-unanimous satisfaction from participants, lawyers, police and magistrates. The program was found to improve pro-social behaviours and relationships, increase coping strategies and improve knowledge of available services.
“Given the high level of participant and stakeholder satisfaction with the program it may be worth expanding the program and re-evaluate it at a later point in time with a larger sample of participants”, Weatherburn said.
The Law Society of NSW has also commended the program, calling it “an effective way to address the causes of offending through appropriate treatment and services,” adding, “The CREDIT program should be made available state-wide and should be supported by a specific legislative basis.”
The government has failed to give proper reasons for the program’s discontinuation, with a spokesperson for Corrective Services stating: “It has always operated in a trial capacity and will operate business as usual until December 31, 2016,” and “Department of Justice is looking at further strategies to reduce reoffending.”
A former CREDIT case worker in Tamworth has also struggled to explain the government’s decision: “I can’t give you a logical explanation why it would be axed,” she said, characterising the decision to remove the “empowering” initiative as a “travesty for our community.”
There aren’t many votes in helping offenders to break the cycle of crime, despite the obvious economic and social benefits to the community. And appearing ‘soft on crime’ can mean political disaster.
An example is previous Liberal Attorney General Greg Smith who was relentlessly criticised and ultimately brought down for his strong views on addressing the causes of offending, rather than locking more people up for longer.
Similar attacks have been levelled at Dr Weatherburn, with 2GB host Ray Hadley accusing him of “… defending criminals, I’ll continue to fight for their victims and the families of the victims.”
With politicians fearful of making decisions which ultimately benefit the community, there are concerns that more programs like CREDIT will face the axe while prison numbers and associated costs continue to skyrocket.