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Practitioners views on the Problems with Australian prisons



Below is an extract from Call for complete rethink as prison population, recidivism explode:

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 –

·         being refused bail,

·         receiving prison terms for minor crimes; and

·         staying in for longer.

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.


Below are two extracts from Prisons at breaking point, but Australia is still addicted to incarceration:

"For Eileen Baldry, a leading criminologist and University of New South Wales deputy vice-chancellor, it’s a hard-headed approach, one that sucks up billions of dollars that could otherwise go towards addressing the root causes of criminality through early intervention, diversion, prevention or rehabilitation programs.

Baldry says prison overcrowding is a product of failed political leadership, and shows governments are unable to withstand the populist compulsion to incarcerate and appear tough on crime.

“I think it’s also a failure of intellectual or evidence-based leadership,” Baldry says. “I have talked to a number of treasurers over decades in NSW, for example, and laid out in front of them the cost of doing this.

“In many ways, many people in the public service understand this and do put these kinds of arguments forward. But, you know, treasurers and other ministers, when I talk to them, and this is both sides of politics, they say, ‘Look, I know that, I understand that, but it will just not fly with the public. It just will not fly with the cabinet.’'

"Former NSW director of public prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdrey, is one of those championing justice reinvestment. He is lobbying the NSW government to invest in the program in the 2018-19 budget.

He agrees the overcrowding problem is a failure of political leadership, and an inability to see past short-term electoral cycles.

“Sensible policy, especially in this area, takes more than three or four years to bear fruit and politicians prefer to stick with the tried and tested approach of ‘tough on crime,’” Cowdrey said.

“There doesn’t seem to be much room for ‘smart on crime’. The community bears the cost and the consequences of such tunnel-visioned policy.”

Prison has long been considered an option of last resort in the criminal justice system.

But Cowdrey believes it is no longer being applied in that way. The rising incarceration rate, he said, is largely a product of increases to maximum sentences and tougher restrictions on bail.

“Despite the lip service paid to the requirement that imprisonment be the punishment of last resort, it is not so used,” he said.


Below is an extract from Australia's jail population hits record high after 20-year surge

"Keith Hamburger, who formerly ran Queensland’s jail system as the state’s first director general of corrective services, said prisons “basically around the country at the moment are overcrowded”.

But “just building more prison cells and stuffing people into them is not the answer”.

Most in jail were on short sentences and with a lack of treatment programs to help stop reoffending. The system cried out for “a different approach from our policymakers”, Hamburger said.

“We need high-security prisons for dangerous long term offenders,” he told the Guardian. “But we are building far too many prison cells for people who churn through, spend weeks or a few months on remand, a few months in jail, then go out again.”

Surging prison numbers were one result of populist “tough on crime” lawmaking by state governments, including mandatory sentencing and tougher hurdles for bail, Hamburger said.

Many people, especially women, were stuck in jail because they could not access safe accommodation or drug treatment programs they needed for otherwise willing magistrates to grant bail, Hamburger said.

Now, if we had bail hostels with substance abuse programs attached to them, we could take a lot of people out of remand prisons around Australia tomorrow,” Hamburger said.

We’re just going about this the wrong way because it’s ridiculous when somebody gets a bail order, particularly for women offenders, and they’ve got a substance abuse problem and inappropriate or unsafe accommodation, and we slot them into jail instead of looking for a more cost-effective option."

“If government put a bit of effort into that in terms of times and resources, that’d be far more cost-effective than jail.”

Hamburger said the Indigenous imprisonment rate was “shocking and in terms of trying to do something, I reckon that’s low-hanging fruit”.

He is a proponent of Indigenous enterprises being given a bigger role in running “a lot of these hostels and healing and rehabilitation facilities” to cut imprisonment rates.

One of the few signs of any fall in jail statistics was the Indigenous imprisonment rate in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, which both fell by 4% in the last year, according to the ABS.

Hamburger said the rise in overall prison numbers demanded “meaningful” action on two main fronts: rehabilitating offenders and getting them back to a “law-abiding lifestyle” in their community, and “dealing with the drivers of social and economic dislocation that a lot of communities are experiencing”.

Most [offenders] come from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds, have had problematic education experiences and many come from abusive and neglectful families,” Hamburger said. “Than we put them in prisons, which are basically [overcrowded] around the country.

“There’s a lack of treatment programs and the great majority of sentences are relatively short sentences.

“So just building more prison cells and stuffing people into them is not the answer.”



Below is an extract from Australia’s prison system isn’t working.  It needs urgent attention -  Jane Fynes-Clinton  Aug 2017



                    "But looking squarely at the bitter reality of our crime statistics, considering alternatives to jail for more offences, spending on correcting instead of warehousing and trusting that our police are keeping us safe are big steps towards a fairer, safer and more just community."


Below is an extract from Australia spending more on prisons, policing than other comparable countries: report

The report, by conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), said despite spending an estimated $16 billion a year on our criminal justice system, Australians felt less safe than the citizens of many comparable countries.

Author Andrew Bushnell said Australia's $4 billion prison system had created a "class of persistent criminals" because it was failing to reform inmates.

The report — Australia's Criminal Justice Costs: An International Comparison — said Australian prisons were the fifth most expensive among 29 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands made up the top three.

In Australia in 2015, the cost of putting one person behind bars for a year was nearly $110,000. The OECD average was $69,000 per person.

The study found incarceration rates are growing rapidly — there are now 36,000 prisoners in Australia, up 39 per cent from a decade ago.

"Over the past five years, international figures show Australia's incarceration growth has outstripped that of many comparable countries," the report said.

"Fellow common law countries, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand all reduced their incarceration levels over the [same] period."

Chart: Australian prisoner spend

The report also found Australians spent more per capita on police than many other OECD countries.

In 2015, Australia is estimated to have spent $427 per person on police services — ranking ninth highest in the OECD.

"All of the countries ranked higher on this measure either have significant terror threats or small populations," the report said.

Mr Bushnell said Australia's level of policing was now higher than all other common law countries apart from Ireland, at 295 police per 100,000 citizens for the year 2015-16.

Australians 'worried about crime levels'

Despite the growth of spending on prisons and police, Australians are more worried than ever about crime levels, according to the IPA report.

It noted that in four polls between 2007 and 2014, Gallup asked people around the world whether they felt safe walking in their neighbourhoods at night.

Australia ranked in the bottom third of OECD countries in every poll, never higher than 20th — and, in the most recent poll, as low as 24th.

Data from the independent government advisory body, the Productivity Commission, backs this up, Mr Bushnell said.

In 2015-16 only 51.7 per cent surveyed said they felt safe walking home at night, while less than a quarter felt safe on public transport at night.

The report found there was "mixed evidence" for whether crime was really more prevalent in Australia than in other developed countries.

International comparisons of crime rates are notoriously unreliable, but one statistic that is broadly comparable is homicide.

On this measure, Australia ranks in the middle band of 29 OECD countries, albeit higher than the UK and New Zealand, and much higher than Japan and Norway.

However, since 2006, Australia has seen a 41 per cent decrease in its homicide rate — from 1.7 per 100,000 people to 1 per 100,000 people.

Prisons creating 'class of persistent criminals'

Mr Bushnell said his research indicated Australian prisons were ineffective in correcting criminal behaviour.

Almost 60 per cent of prisoners had been imprisoned before and 45 per cent of prisoners released during 2013-14 returned to prison within two years.

This, he argued, had created a "class of persistent criminals".

Prison rates since Federation


Below is an extract from The expensive problem with our prisons: Why spending more doesn't make us feel safer  -  Andrew Bushnell

Alternatives to prison

When you consider Australia has a high level of reoffending, with more than half of released prisoners returning to corrections within two years, it is clear that our increased criminal justice spending is not yielding the results we might rightly expect.


Below is an extract from BOCSAR crime stats boss Don Weatherburn calls for lighter prison sentences

Sarah Hopkins, a managing solicitor for the Aboriginal Legal Service and chair of Just Reinvest NSW, said workers in the justice system had reached "an all-time high level of frustration".

"We have this entrenched public conversation around ... the need to punish and the power of punishment to deter crime. When you look at the evidence, it simply isn't true.  Harsh punishment does not deter people from committing crime," she said.

The Productivity Commission found 44.3 per cent of adult prisoners released in 2012-13 returned to prison within two years, an increase from 39.9 per cent in 2010-11. In NSW, the average cost per inmate, per day, is $237.34.

A spokeswoman for the NSW government said they would consider the contents of Dr Weatherburn's paper. "Community safety is the government's number one priority and this requires an efficient and effective justice system," she said.



Below is an extract from Back to prison  -  Background Briefing

In NSW, it’s approximately $250 per day. By contrast, the work of Community Restorative Centre ("CRC") was costing an estimated $70 per day. Governments continue to spend much more on locking people up than on the cheaper options that prevent people returning to jail.

Lou Schetzer, from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, says: ‘It's dumb public policy. It's dumb economics. It's costing the taxpayer an enormous amount for these people to be continually re-offending and re-incarcerated. And we really need to look at a better way of investing the public dollar that encourages that reintegration into society so that people who are released from prison can make that valuable contribution to society.’

The Department of Corrective Services says that under the new system, it will be spending twice as much as it is currently on transition programs. But there are concerns about the efficacy of the new three month programs, whether the pay rates can attract the degree of skilled staff needed for complex clients, and about case loads.

Professor Eileen Baldry from the University of NSW, researches prison populations. Up to half of prisoners have a mental health disorder, and a significant minority—up to 15 per cent—have a cognitive impairment. Professor Baldry has found that there’s significant overlap of those and other issues.

‘Post-release,’ she says, ‘you really need skilled workers, you need a range of connections to the range of service provisions that that person will need, and you need time.’

‘This is not something which is going to be addressed in three months or six months. It’s something that’s going to take a long time.’

There’s a dearth of research in Australia on what works in post-release programs. However, Professor Baldry says overseas research makes clear what model is necessary.

‘[What] we know works is, some people call it “wrap around”, some people call it holistic, some people call it a “fully supported housing project”. That’s the kind of program that is most useful. Because what it does, it addresses either sequentially or at the same time, a lot of those issues.’

‘Work, particularly in the United Kingdom, some in Canada and a bit in the United States, shows very clearly that the recidivism rates from those kinds of programs are very low.’

Don Weatherburn, the director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, says governments should be focusing on recidivism above all else.

‘Well it's hugely important,’ he says. ‘We tend to preoccupy ourselves with creating alternatives to prison, forgetting that most people going to prison this year, or last year, are actually going back to prison.’

There’s more leverage, he says, in reducing the prison population by reducing the rate of return to prison, rather than reducing the number of people who go there in the first instance.

Tackling recidivism is not politically popular, however. The last NSW politician who tried was the recently dumped Attorney-General, Greg Smith.

His former media advisor, legal journalist Michael Pelly, says Mr Smith’s interest in keeping people out of jail, where possible, was popular for a while—including with the new Premier, Mike Baird, who was then the treasurer. Prison numbers came down, and jails were closed.

‘The treasurer thought this was tremendous,’ says Mr Pelly. ‘Less money: $70,000 a year for an adult, $250,000 a year for a juvenile.’

‘That adds up to a lot of hospital beds you can provide. And a lot of deficit and infrastructure you can build. And that was all going very well until the pressure went on, and the whole notion that anybody would be seen as soft on crime.’

According to Mr Pelly, the pressure came largely from one source: 2GB’s Ray Hadley.

‘Ray has very solid links to the police and has a very particular view about law and order policy, and his voice is extremely influential.’

‘Each parliamentary office up at Parliament has a radio selection. And I can assure you that from 9 o clock to 12 o'clock, I'd say 80 per cent of parliamentarians had Ray Hadley on the radio and had Ray Hadley telling them for a good four months that Greg Smith is soft on crime, was a raving lunatic, that Barry [O’Farrell] should sack him.’

Gradually, Mr Smith lost the support of his colleagues. Mr Pelly says he was frustrated that amid the noise of the law and order rhetoric, the fact that the Attorney-General was aiming for a safer community was lost.

‘This is the whole folly of the exercise. That it doesn't allow for a nuanced approach.’

‘Don't forget we were a penal colony, founded on the idea that people could get a fresh start. Macquarie emancipated the convicts, made them productive members of society.’



Below is an extract from Queensland drug trafficking convictions up 330 per cent in 10 years: report by Kristian Silva - 14 Feb 2018:

"Mick Palmer, a former Australian Federal Police commissioner, said a "one size fits all" approach did not work when it came to punishing drug traffickers, many of whom were low-level operators and addicts themselves. 


At a prisons Reintegration in Australia in 2017, former NSW Inspector of Custodial Services, John Paget, said that the $3.8 billion expansion of NSW prisons, including 7,000 extra beds show “the expensive failure of public policy in Australia”.1 

1 Inspector of Custodial Services, Full House: The growth of the inmate population in NSW (April 2005) Department of Justice