Last week, the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) released the latest statistics on reoffending in NSW.
Those statistics reveal a concerning trend towards reoffending, also known as ‘recidivism’, with more than half of offenders engaging in crime again within 10 years.
Crime is economically and socially costly to the Australian community; and one of the aims of punishment is deterrence – both general and specific.
General deterrence seeks to discourage others from committing crimes, while specific deterrence aims to dissuade the particular offender from engaging in crime again. Another important goal is rehabilitation, which endeavours to provide offenders with employment, education and life skills in order to reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend.
High rates of recidivism tend to suggest that we are failing to achieve these objectives.
BOCSAR’s latest briefing suggests that almost 60% of offenders are convicted of another offence within a 10 year period, and the percentage rises to 79% for those under 18 years old.
Interestingly, the subsequent crime/s are usually different to the initial offence.
Causes of Recidivism
The causes of recidivism are complex. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, risk factors include drug use, unemployment, low levels of education and mental health issues. A lack of support services after release from prison is also as a contributing factor.
According to the NSW Law Reform Commission, being sent to prison may actually increase the likelihood of re-offending, rather than acting as a deterrent. The Commission found that:
Full-time imprisonment does not seem to deter reoffending and, when compared to other less serious sentences, may actually increase the likelihood that a person will reoffend.
Responses to Reoffending in NSW
There has been a steady move in NSW towards harsher penalties, rather than programs aimed at addressing the underlying causes of recidivism.
This is reflected in the introduction and expansion of ‘standard non-parole periods’ and ‘mandatory minimum sentences’, the tightening of bail laws and increases in maximum penalties for a range of offences.
At the same time, the state government has cut millions of dollars from programs that are designed to address the underlying causes of offending – including drug treatment programs, employment and social support services.
The NSW Law Reform Commission suggests that a greater use of alternative sentencing options could reduce reoffending rates, recommending an emphasis on home detention, intensive correction orders and suspended sentences, and supplementing these with better support and monitoring of offenders in the community.
If reducing recidivism is important to the government – rather than just winning votes – it might consider investing in measures that aim to break the cycle of crime – rather than just sending more people to prison for longer, at great expense and risk to the community.