Between 2011 and 2017, the NSW adult female prisoner population has increased by 50 percent, according to a recent Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) report. And the sharpest increase has been since the beginning of 2015.
Released on March 21, the Recent Trends in the NSW Female Prison Population report found that 682 women were being detained in NSW correctional facilities in 2011, whereas the number skyrocketed to 1,021 by 2017.
And while some might attribute the rise to an increase in serious offences or harsher sentencing, the fact of the matter is that crime rates are on the decline and, according to the study, the primary reason is tougher policing measures by our boys in blue.
More women arrested
The number of women sent to court after being arrested by NSW police has risen by 18 percent over the seven-year study period. This seems to have led to a rise in the number of women remanded in custody awaiting the finalisation of cases.
There’s been a 55 percent increase in the number of women held on remand, awaiting their court dates – which equates to average of 64 extra women each month.
There’s also, however, been an increase in the number of women being sentenced to prison. Over the said period, an extra 20 women per month on average were sentenced to gaol, which accounts for an 83 percent increase in these numbers.
But the most startling rise was in the amount of female repeat offenders who appeared before the courts. Researcher Evarn J Ooi calculated a 162 percent increase in reoffenders with a least one prior conviction facing criminal charges.
Time in custody
The BOCSAR report considered a number of factors that could account for such a rapid rise in women being detained in NSW. One consideration was whether female inmates are serving longer periods of time behind bars.
Amongst female prisoners who were held on remand only, meaning they were not required to actually serve a prison sentence following the finalisation of their cases, there was an increase of 10 percent in incarceration time, up from 31 to 38 days.
There was also a slight decrease in the amount of time served by women who received bail and were subsequently sentenced of 46 days on average. Although, the report found this of little statistical significance.
However, what was significant was a 90 day decrease on the average prison term imposed upon women who had been remanded before they were sentenced. But overall, the length of time spend in custody was not a contributing factor to the increase in the NSW female prisoner population.
No evidence was found to show that women are committing more serious offences. Amongst crimes likely to attract longer sentences, such as homicide, sexual assault and dangerous or negligent acts endangering persons, the number of offences has remained stable since 2011.
Indeed, the top five offences committed by women remained the same over the study period, which are traffic and vehicle regulatory offences, acts intended to cause injury, illicit drug offences, offences against government procedures, security and operations, as well as theft.
This reveals, what studies have shown in the past, that woman are being sentenced to prison for relatively minor offences. Around two thirds of women are imprisoned for lesser crimes and serve sentences of under six months.
The number of women appearing before the courts with prior convictions rose dramatically. In 2011, 18 percent of women appearing before the courts, had at least one prior conviction, while in 2017, this cohort accounted for almost half the women appearing in NSW criminal courts.
The report suggests this increase could be a result of “changes in the criminal behaviour or motivations of female offenders.” Whereas, BOCSAR director Dr Don Weatherburn remarked that it was likely due to the increased attention NSW police have given to apprehending repeat offenders.
And once the numbers were crunched, BOCSAR found that there didn’t “appear to be any evidence that the courts have an increased proclivity to sentence female offenders to prison.” This relates to both first time and repeat offenders.
Although, reoffenders are more likely to be sentenced to prison than first time offenders.
Indigenous women in detention
The most marked increase in the NSW female inmate population over the seven-year period was the rise in the number of Indigenous women being held in correctional facilities, which rose by a glaring 74 percent.
This is in keeping with national trends that find the largest growth in a particular group of inmates across the country is in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Nationwide there’s been a 250 percent increase in the number of Indigenous women being held in prison since 1991.
The need for a path out
According to the BOCSAR report, another reason behind the high number of reoffenders appearing before the courts is that women with “a prior criminal history generally do not have access to labour market opportunities once released from custody, and subsequently, return to criminal activity.”
Former Women’s Justice Network chief executive Lana Sandas told Sydney Criminal Lawyers® last year that there are a lack of pre and post release programs for women to address their issues, as most government funding goes towards male offenders due to their higher numbers.
And Ms Sandas stressed the need for alternatives to be in place so that increasing amounts of women are not remanded. “We know that when a woman sleeps in a prison, even just for a few nights, there’s a 50 percent chance she will return there within two years,” she explained.
Formerly known as WIPAN, the Women’s Justice Network is a grassroots organisation that provides a mentoring service for women post release. Between 2013 and 2016, 93 percent of participants in the program didn’t reoffend.
Filling those beds
There are two major drivers between the rapid growth in women inmates in NSW, the BOCSAR report concluded. “The first is a growth in the number of women appearing before the criminal courts,” due to a notable rise in NSW police proceeding against them.
Whilst, “the second is a rise in the number of women with a significant criminal history who are being proceeded against by NSW police.”
It seems that as the NSW government is currently investing $3.8 billion to fund an extra 7,000 inmate beds, state authorities are also making sure the number of citizens being incarcerated is on the increase in order to justify that investment.
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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.