Prison Population and Recidivism

17th November 2016

Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 11:30 ): I move:

That this House:

(1)Notes that the number of people incarcerated in New South Wales prisons has risen by 18 per cent in the five years to 2015 having reached a record high of 12,641 in September 2016.

(2)Notes the Government's $237 million strategy to fund programs aimed at reducing rates of recidivism while remaining tough on serious offenders including a strengthened focus on the perpetrators of domestic violence.

(3)Congratulates the Minister for Corrections on these initiatives and calls on the Government to continue to actively pursue strategies to reduce the percentage of citizens in detention with a particular emphasis on juveniles, Indigenous persons and persons on remand.

I thank the House for the opportunity to raise and debate this motion, as it is an important matter. I note that the member for Lakemba wanted to discuss matters relating to the maintenance of public schools, which is also an important matter. This is an issue that has been too little debated in this House. I acknowledge the good work that has been done by the Minister for Corrections and the Attorney General, but I do not want this debate to focus on congratulating the Government. Although I acknowledge the good work that has been done by the Government, more needs to be done to provide a fair and just New South Wales with a better outcome for all.

New South Wales jails hold more inmates now than ever before. Today more than 12,500 people are incarcerated. Of those, about one-quarter are Indigenous Australians and 3,600 are on remand. It is a sad reality that almost half of the prisoners will reoffend upon release and return to jail, at great financial and social cost to our community. Incarceration is not the silver bullet that the community wishes it was to rehabilitate offenders. Clearly we need to do more. The purpose of the motion is to acknowledge what the Government is doing to reverse the trends and call on the Government to actively pursue further strategies to reduce prison populations, particularly among juveniles, Indigenous people and those on remand.

I thank the Parliament for allowing the motion to be reordered and debated. It is a reflection of the importance of this issue and the Government's genuine desire to take action, to seek a better result for law-abiding citizens and to rehabilitate those who find their way to the wrong side of the tracks. I take heart from the conversations I have had with the Minister for Corrections and the Attorney General. There is no doubt that the community wants the Government to be tough on crime. The community expects tough punishments for those who commit violent and heinous crimes, crimes against children and those who engage in domestic violence. You do those crimes and you rightly do the time. Further effort is required to ensure offenders find ways and opportunities to salvage themselves from cycles of crime and to rehabilitate into good and decent members of the community.

I acknowledge that rising prison populations are partly a consequence of better policing methods and more intense policing. There is little to suggest that it is the result of longer sentences handed down by the courts. The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reports that the prison population swelled by 18 per cent between 2013 and 2015. It grew further this year, reaching the current record high of 12,641 in September. In 2013, between 200 and 250 new prisoners entered our jails each month. That number is now above 300 per month. Much of that growth is due to a sharp rise in the number of people being charged with offences remaining on remand. Some of those people are held on remand for 12 months before their case is heard. That is a huge cost to the community.

Most of those on remand are sentenced to prison, but some are not. Those who are released are likely to be damaged for life. In recent years the number of people jailed for the following offences has risen significantly: stalking and intimidation, negligent driving, criminal intent, obtain benefit by deception, possess prohibited weapons and breach of community order. No crime is a victimless crime. Though occurring more often, these crimes are not regarded as being at the high end of the criminality scale. Last year the average cost of keeping one prisoner in open custody was $164.29 per day. That is below the national average but equates to $60,000 per year.

The most concerning figures relate to the high representation of Indigenous men and women in our jails. Between September 2014 and March 2015 the number of Indigenous people in jail rose by 8.6 per cent. Of the total prison population, almost one in four are Indigenous. Currently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are imprisoned at a rate 13 times higher than non-Indigenous people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up 2 per cent of Australia's population but 27 per cent of the prison population. Indigenous juveniles are 24 times more likely to be in detention than are non-Indigenous juveniles. Among Indigenous offenders, the rates of public order offences, acts intended to cause injury and justice procedures are rising.

In that same period, the number of juveniles in custody increased by 23 per cent, with the number of Indigenous juveniles in custody increasing by 34.2 per cent. The number of juveniles held on remand rose 72 per cent in the same period. Many of these issues are being targeted by a range of new programs aimed at arresting these trends. The youth justice conference and community services programs and the Youth on Track program are chipping away at recidivism and reforming many young people who have headed off the rails. In some cases, police and educators are identifying young people at risk of offending and intervening before things get out of hand.

For Indigenous people, notable programs include the Cannabis Cautioning Scheme, where police assist offenders by focusing on education rather than on punishment. There is also the Statewide Community and Court Liaison Service, which, among other things, works on mental health issues. There is a court-based drug diversion program and a Forum Sentencing program, which refer eligible defendants into treatment. The Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project at Bourke is focused on lowering crime rates and pioneering new ways of doing business to assist and support Aboriginal youths and their families. These are the types of programs that have the potential to keep people out of jail. With these measures in place, hopefully more people will be rehabilitated than incarcerated and fewer people will drift towards a life of crime. It will keep our community safer and lower the cost and burden of law enforcement.

This is not about going soft on offenders; that is not the intention of this motion. The community expects our lawmakers and courts to get tough on violent offenders. There is no question that the gauntlet should continue to be thrown down to those who commit serious offences, including domestic violence. There are programs that salvage people from a life of crime. Many offenders could live a productive life if they received the right intervention at the right time. That is the intent of this motion. If people do not reoffend and first-time offenders are rehabilitated, if we reverse the over-representation of Indigenous people and juveniles in our jails and reduce the length of stay of people on remand and limit their exposure to the criminal element, we will have a safer and more just community.

<< Previous | Next >>