What drives a person to commit a crime?
Are certain people more likely to offend?
These questions have been considered for hundreds of years, with everything from physical characteristics to class status being seen as responsible for an increased likelihood of offending.
The questions have been looked by reference to offender statistics in a paper recently published by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR).
The study examined criminal history and recidivism data of persons who had frequent contact with the criminal justice system in order to determine the correlates of prolific offending.
What is a ‘Prolific Offender’?
Prolific offenders are defined as those who offend regularly; which BOCSAR defines as those with four or more contacts with the justice system, including court appearances, youth justice conferences, and police cautions, over a two-year period.
Although ‘prolific offenders’ made up only 1.7% of all people that had adverse contact with the criminal justice system in 2011, they accounted for around 17% of all such contacts.
Who is Most Likely to be a Prolific Offender?
The study found that those most likely to be prolific offenders have two or more of the following characteristics:
- Under the age of 18,
- Spent time in custody,
- From low socio-economic areas.
It found that prolific offenders tend to be charged with multiple offences at the same time, and are more likely to:
- Be refused bail,
- Not have a lawyer,
- Spend time in custody,
- Have been charged with a violent, property or justice offence in the past 10 years,
- Have committed offences during their youth.
Geographical regions were analysed to determine where prolific offenders were based.
The highest percentage was recorded in the Newcastle/Lake Macquarie region, closely followed by the Far West/Orana area, the Mid North Coast, Outer South West, Blacktown and Central Coast areas.
The Ryde district recorded the lowest number of total offenders and the lowest percentage of prolific offending.
A whopping 74.5% of prolific offenders reoffended in the two years following their last court appearance; compared to 29.1% of non-prolific offenders.
They were more likely to reoffend faster; within an average of 67 days compared to 595 days for other offenders.
Breaking the Cycle of Crime
So how can we get prolific offenders to stop offending?
Sadly, our current approach generally means sending them back to prison, where they are further alienated and are unlikely to gain skills to facilitate a law-abiding lifestyle.
Despite a raft of Australian studies finding that ‘this group warrants intensive intervention,’ there are very few programs which target prolific offenders in Australia.
Rather, efforts are focussed on boosting police resources and sending them to prison longer. With little focus on prevention, they are likely to continue the cycle of crime.
Other countries such as Canada offer targeted programs for prolific offenders, aiming to keep them off the streets and helping them turn their lives around.
The Canadian Priority Prolific Offender Program works by identifying such offenders, monitoring them when released, and providing courses and counselling to steer them onto the right track. The program recognises that many prolific offenders are battling addiction, suffering from mental health problems and often have limited education and life skills.
A similar program, the Prolific and Priority Offender Strategy, is run by the UK government and provides programs aimed at reducing re-offending by addressing underlying issues and teaching new skills. The strategy has programs which address drug and alcohol addiction, target specific types of offending (e.g. sex offending) and teach employment skills. Once released into the community, prolific offenders are monitored and supported by local government agencies.
Offenders who have participated in the UK strategy were found to be less likely to reoffend – with younger offenders benefitting the most.
In Australia, people who are released from prison are generally monitored by Community Corrections (formerly the Probation and Parole Service) for the duration of their parole period. This may involve reporting regularly to the service, taking part in counselling or programs, and seeking employment or education. However, programs are limited and are not tailored towards prolific offenders.
Rather than spending enormous resources on locking more people away for longer, perhaps we should follow in the footsteps of Canada and England and provide prolific offenders with the support necessary to break the cycle of crime – which could be a win/win for both offenders and the community.