Call for complete rethink as prison population, recidivism explodeSMH - Rachel Olding 19 February 2016
Nearly half of NSW inmates leaving prison will be back within two years, the worst rate of any state
In a glossy document released last September, Premier Mike Baird radically reset the state's major policy priorities with an ambitious new set of 31 performance targets.
Beneath the big ticket items like creating 150,000 new jobs, completing new infrastructure projects and improving wait times in NSW hospitals, there was a less talked about target: to reduce adult reoffending by 5 per cent by 2019.
Nearly half of NSW inmates leaving prison will be back within two years, the worst rate of any state.
It will be a formidable challenge.
Recidivism rates have reached critical levels in NSW, outlined by government statistician Don Weatherburn this week in a brutal assessment of the country's approach to crime and imprisonment.Advertisement
Dr Weatherburn, the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, called for a complete rethink of the way crime is dealt with in the face of an exploding prison population and a political obsession with being "tough on crime".
Despite crime rates falling sharply since 2001, the prison population has increased, largely due to more people –
Australia has about 36,000 prisoners and is spending more than $2.6 billion a year keeping them there. It is the most expensive and least effective form of reducing crime.
To reverse the trend, Dr Weatherburn floated a five-point plan that included –
With the prison population in NSW hitting new records each month – it rose 12 per cent last year to reach 12,121 in January – so too has the number of men and women getting stuck in the revolving door of incarceration.
NSW's recidivism rate is the worst of any state. About 48 per cent of inmates leaving prison will be back within two years, up nearly 1 percentage point for every financial year since 2011. Only the NT has a worse record.
Last April, a freshly appointed Corrective Services Minister, David Elliott, said the reoffending rate would be one of his first priorities.
"I want prisoners to leave jail punished, literate and drug-free," he said at the time.
So far, he has announced a new prison in Grafton with better infrastructure for rehabilitation and the introduction of report cards for all NSW prisons, measuring criteria such as time spent out of cells and how often inmates reoffend.
He said a NSW Strategy to Reduce Reoffending will also pursue innovative solutions, like a social impact investment policy that encourages private investment made on the promise of successful public outcomes.
Mr Elliott's comment went to the heart of the purpose of prison which, he says, is about rehabilitation as much as punishment and community safety.
However, a damning 2014 report by the Inspector of Custodial Services found that health, education and work opportunities in prison had not kept pace with the population rise – leaving prison a means of "simply warehousing inmates".
Work opportunities had declined by 10 per cent, the average wait time to see a GP had blown out to one month and two-thirds of eligible inmates were not getting their chosen education course, the report found.
Support mechanisms are in place for those leaving prison on parole only. Workers in the sector say prisoners on remand and shorter sentences have no pre-release help – a concerning predicament given they comprise the majority of prisoners and suffer the same disruption and damage as sentenced inmates.
For parolees, each prisoner has pre-release planning to help their transition.
Ms Wiechmann was hired by the association last year to bring to life a unique idea: a social enterprise removalist company employing ex-inmates.
It will cost $7000 for each employee – providing them with a job, new skills and associated support like help to find a house, get an Opal card or use a smartphone. This compares to about $85,000 per year to keep them in prison.
Yet this is the only social enterprise for ex-prisoners in NSW that Ms Wiechmann knows of. She is applying for government grants but expects most funding will be philanthropic.
"We don't have cute kids or puppy dogs, there's not a lot of sympathy for these people," she said.
"But the work we're doing actually affects the average person in our community much more, through crime and costs and government savings. We're talking about billions of dollars for the justice portfolio and that's no longer seen as outrageous."
Of the 15,000 men and women who leave prison each year, about 300 get reintegration support through major provider Community Restorative Centre. Research by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre found a third of ex-inmates spend their first night out of jail sleeping rough.
"The first three months involve very intensive case work," CRC's programs director Mindy Sotiri said.
"For a lot of people we work with, they really don't have anybody else that's in their corner. They've often burnt bridges with family and friends, they're often isolated. Loneliness and social isolation is one of the key reasons people go back to prison and their caseworker is often the one person in their life that is genuinely hopeful they can change."
Corrective Services NSW recently increased the funding for non-profit NGOs to help with post-release support yet most people are provided with a maximum three months of help.
A CSNSW spokeswoman said there was a "comprehensive plan" for reducing re-offending and participation in many rehab programs was increasing significantly, including those addressing addiction, aggression, domestic violence and sex offending.
However, the biggest challenge to meeting Mr Baird's ambitious target may be closer to home.
Dr Weatherburn's plea to tone down the political rhetoric is no easy feat. The last Liberal attorney-general to take such an approach, Greg Smith, did not fare well.
His former media adviser, legal journalist Michael Pelly, told the ABC in 2014 that Mr Baird was initially impressed by the falling prisoner numbers and closing jails but Mr Smith was brought down by continual attacks from 2GB host Ray Hadley for being "soft on crime".
Mr Hadley was in similar form on Thursday, suggesting Dr Weatherburn supported bail for paedophiles and saying: "You're defending criminals, I'll continue to fight for their victims and the families of the victims."
Dr Sotiri said Mr Baird's target is achievable if successful release programs that operate in small pockets are taken up on a much bigger scale.
"It will take a huge amount of political bravery," she said.