Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Archival Rescue 62 ~ Aus prisons, NSW

Eek. Ominous. Australian NSW prisons stretched and overcrowded, prison population increases by 40 percent;

Prisons swell as tougher sentences bite

By Jonathan Pearlman June 7, 2005 Sydney Morning Herald

An increase in the severity of sentences delivered by criminal courts is adding to the surge in the state's prison population and a drop in the use of community service orders, new figures show.

There are more than 9000 people in prisons in NSW, an increase of more than 40 per cent in the past decade. But the growth has been accompanied by a drop of about 35 per cent in the use of community service orders, according to figures prepared by the NSW Bureau of Crime Research and Statistics.

The drop has led to the growing cost of maintaining and building more prisons. It may also be adding to the state's reoffending rate, which is the second highest in the country.

The cost of keeping an offender in prison is $173 a day, compared with $9.56 a day to administer a community service order.

A senior counsel from the Public Defender's Office, Andrew Haesler, said pressure from politicians and the media had led to higher sentences and "revolving door jails". "Taking people off the streets and putting them in prison has short-term benefits," he said.

"Sentences have been going up in terms of severity but people who come out of jail are not better for it or less likely to commit another crime. The longer they spend in jail, the less they are able to cope with the community and the more dangerous they are."

The bureau's figures showed only 2 per cent of sentences delivered in the District and Supreme Courts in 2003 were community service orders, compared with 16 per cent in 1994.

The bureau's director, Don Weatherburn, said the figures reflected a hardening of attitudes among judges and magistrates.

"People who previously would have been given non-custodial orders are being given a custodial sentence," he said.

"We have seen an increased proportion of convicted offenders going to jail."

The shift towards tougher sentences has led to steep increases in spending on prisons and staff. Last month's state budget set aside $928million for corrective services, up 14 per cent from last year.

The Government plans to create room for 1000 more at a new jail in regional NSW and expansions of Cessnock and Lithgow jails. The jail population is expected to grow to 10,000 by 2008.

While the number of criminal convictions increased by about 20 per cent in the past decade, the number of community service orders dropped by about a quarter.

Community service orders require offenders to work for up to 500 hours at charities, nursing homes, children's homes, museums and community centres. They are designed to assist with rehabilitation by allowing prisoners to live at home while contributing to the community.

Offenders worked for about 1688 non-profit organisations last year and provided about $11.43million worth of unpaid work, according to the Department of Corrective Service's annual report.

A lecturer in social work at the University of NSW, Eileen Baldry, said people sentenced to community service were less likely to reoffend because they retained their social ties and were able to compensate the community for their crimes. "Community service orders that require some level of reparation from offenders are very beneficial," she said.

"For a lot of offenders, doing some form of work for the community is a far more connected response to their offending than going to jail. The more you can keep someone connected to the community, the more likely it is they will be able to co-operate in the community with others."

Paying The Price

- The number of inmates rose by 40 per cent in the past decade, while community service orders fell 35 per cent.

- The Government plans to spend $928 million on the prison system this year, up 14 per cent.

- The cost of keeping a prisoner is $173 a day, compared to $9.56 a day for a community service order.


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