Saturday, February 26, 2011

The coronation of King Barry

By Tom Westbrook, Justinian, 23 February 2011:
The law and justice spokespeople for the main parties were put through their paces at a Community Justice forum in Sydney on the weekend ... Opposition parties want to make significant changes to the "penal colony" ... Labor is stuck with its record ... Tom Westbrook reports 
Community Justice Coalition's pre-election forum on criminal justice and the NSW prison system provided a unique opportunity for voters to get within sniffing distance of the main contenders.
Organisers promised a glimpse of what is a rare beast in the era of the new paradigm – the policy speech.
The closest approximation on display was shadow attorney general Greg Smith's enthusiastic vision for "a better society".
As well as the usual raft of inquiries, he proposed to end the "penal" tenor of NSW's approach to criminal justice system. Instead, under the Coalition there would be a renewed focus on education and rehabilitation.
Smith added that what an O'Farrell government might actually deliver was, "for the leader to announce".
NSW attorney general John Hatzistergos and Greens MLC David Shoebridge were also in attendance with their parties' responses to a CJC questionnaire on law and order policies.

Tasmania's revolution in prisons

By Greg Barns, The Drum, 25 February 2011: 
Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim is leading a revolution.
McKim, Minister for Corrections in the State’s Labor-Green coalition government, is doing something no other prisons minister in this country has ever done – shift the focus of prison management from that of blunt security of maximum security prisoners to one of maximizing their freedom within the confines of the prison boundaries so as to increase the opportunity for rehabilitation.
That Mr McKim’s policy reform is radical is manifest in his actions and rhetoric. He has taken on the union movement with his bold move this week to stand down 40 correctional officers after they objected to McKim’s decision to remove Tactical Response Group armed officers from high security areas of Hobart’s Risdon prison, and to allow prisoners in maximum security areas more time out of their cells and without having to be handcuffed. Some unions have reacted in a bully boy fashion, threatening the Greens with no more political donations if McKim continues with his actions.
McKim’s opponents accuse him of putting the safety of correctional officers at risk by removing armed guards, handcuffs and allowing prisoners more sunshine. But this is of course nonsense. McKim understands what Australian correctional authorities stuck in the 19th century English model of prison life have refused to acknowledge, presumably for political reasons. That is, that it is the deprivation of liberty itself which is the punishment. Once a person is inside prison they are entitled - and it makes perfect sense - to be treated with dignity and respect.
But the reality of life for the vast majority of prisoners in Australia, and particularly those in maximum security areas, is that their lives are governed by a capricious discipline system, long periods of being locked down in their cells, and very limited opportunities to focus on mental and physical health and rehabilitation. The world in which they exist (because it cannot be said that they ‘live’) is oppressive. There are alarms, bars, grey walls, limited access to sunlight, and armed guards. The food quality is poor and the opportunities to access recreational, educational and mental health programs is severely limited or non-existent. Prison management shamefully uses family visits as a disciplinary tool – ‘misbehave and you can’t see your kids.’

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Focus on prisoner rehab

By Tyron Butson, Northern District Times, 24 Feb 11:
A COALITION Government would spend more on prisoner rehabilitation and outreach projects rather than simply jailing them at the taxpayers’ expense, shadow attorney-general Greg Smith says.
The Epping MP said rehabilitation projects generally cost the taxpayer less than enforcing prison sentences for relatively minor crimes - and often gave better results.
“I would be looking at beefing up rehabilitation programs and support services, we know that the expenses for keeping people in custody is expensive - we’re talking $1 billion a year,” he said.
“The courts themselves, the DPP and legal services need greater support from the government, the State Government has not been particularly supportive of our legal services.
“Extra funding for these projects is just one aspect, courts also need the support of their government to operate effectively.”
Last June the Keneally Government rolled out new sentencing legislation that included mandatory participation in rehabilitation and education programs and random breath and urine tests. Attorney-General John Hatzistergos said the program was aimed at cutting reoffending by 10 per cent by 2016.
Mr Smith, who became a public prosecutor in 1987 and was deputy director of public prosecution for the Supreme Court of NSW, has previously criticised the program for putting added pressure on probation and parole officers.
Long tipped to take the Attorney General’s job if Labor is defeated in March, he said his legal background made him a solid pick.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the leaders but I’m quietly confident,” he said. “And I think that’s appropriate.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Youth 'grow out' of crime, study finds

SMH, February 22, 2011 (AAP): 
Youths who commit crime grow out of offending as they become older.
Research by the Australian Institute of Criminology says while a substantial amount of crime is perpetuated by young people, most adopt law-abiding lifestyles as they mature.
"While juveniles, because of a number of unique factors, may come into contact with the criminal justice system, they also have a strong capacity for rehabilitation," the study's author Dr Kelly Richards said in a statement.
Risk taking, lack of maturity and peer pressure increase the risk of children breaking the law.
Intellectual disability and mental illness are other risk factors.
"These factors, combined with juveniles' unique capacity to be rehabilitated, can require intensive and often expensive interventions by the juvenile justice system," Dr Richards said.
Intervention can include non-custodial sentencing, meetings between offenders and victims or taking into account the law's impact on the psychological wellbeing of the offender.
However, the report warned that harm can be done if intervention is ineffective or unsuitable.
For example, young people in detention can influence their peers to pick up criminal behaviour.
Also, detention can disrupt school attendance and family life.
Dr Richards says programs where young people are taken to prisons to see what they're like have been shown to backfire.

Speech by Ed Husic MP

Matter of Public Importance
February 22nd, 2011

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (4.12 pm)— I’ve often said that if you want to see some of the proudest Australians, take yourself to a Citizenship Ceremony.

On those days, when families are brought together, seeing others take the pledge to their new nation, you see some of the happiest faces in the country.

I have to admit my own heart bursts with pride watching the smiles, the looks that are exchanged, the arms on another person’s shoulder.

And every moment the bond between new citizen and new home deepens.

It is among the moments I live for as a Member of Parliament – and I share in that joy as people feel the uplifting power of a second chance, sensing a brighter future ahead.

Our new citizens feel they can grow in a nation free of persecution – one where democracy, freedom of thought, freedom of religion are core values, held dear by the nation – and expected to be cherished, nourished and protected by its citizens.

So many of us have shared those experiences in electorates across one of the greatest nations on the planet.

It’s a powerful experience because we are inspired by the outward demonstration of unity and commitment to common good.

But a commitment to a united and common good cannot be found upon divided ground.

Those before us – in this place – had the wisdom to recognise this.

Over the course of a quarter of a century they worked together to peel away a policy we rightly shun today – the White Australia Policy.

The policy had its birth in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, but in 1949 Minister Holt of the Menzies Government took the step of releasing the grip of this policy by allowing non-European refugees from World War II to remain in Australia – followed up by a decision in 1957 to allow certain non-Europeans with 15 years residence to become citizens.

The Menzies Government ditched the ‘dictation test” which had applicants undertake tests in languages they had no hope of knowing, such as Latin.

In 1966 then Minister Opperman announced applications would be received from non-Europeans.

Significantly, in 1973 the Whitlam Government introduced a specifically non-racially based immigration policy. It has been a cornerstone of policy for 38 years.


Until last week.

When three distinct events combined to create a firm image in the minds of many that levering off religion for political advantage is something not being pursued by a fringe group – but by a major party in this country.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Coalition open to wide-ranging prison reforms

By Geesche Jacobsen, SMH, February 19, 2011:
NSW should increase alternatives to prison for minor offences, encourage lower sentences, review bail laws and consider a needle exchange trial in prisons.
These are some of the election proposals put forward by the Coalition in response to a call for prison reform.
The commitments come from the Coalition's campaign director, Mark Neeham, in a policy questionnaire by the Community Justice Coalition.
Responses by the Labor Party to the proposals were along the lines of ''the government is already doing this''. The party's 37-page response features the word ''already'' 51 times.
The Community Justice Coalition's president, David Bitel, a lawyer and a long-time Labor Party member, said yesterday that the group would not endorse a political party but would support those committed to progressive prison reforms.
''In the UK and the US it has been accepted that prison is not a solution to crime in most situations,'' Mr Bitel said. ''One has to look at the long-term consequences for those [prisoners] involved in terms of rehabilitation and in terms of their families.''
The current policies were creating a ''generational'' prison population, which came at a huge cost to the community, he said.

Why we should believe Nick Clegg when he promises to restore liberties stolen by Labour

By Henry Porter, The Observer, Sun 13 Feb:
Nick Clegg shows me the photograph of Lucian Freud painting the Queen's portrait that he chose from the Government Art Collection for Peter Mandelson's old office, which he now occupies as deputy prime minister. He is intrigued by the encounter between two great survivors of modern British life, one of whom he now sees on a regular basis as lord president of the council. He mentions that he is struck by her sense of humour.
Given the pounding the Liberal Democrats have received in the last few months, Clegg is ebullient and wreathed in smiles. I marvel at the resilience of politicians, though of course the Protection of Freedoms Bill, published last Friday, is a genuine Liberal Democrat triumph and Clegg can claim that his own firm belief in individual liberty has been placed at the heart of the coalition's programme: he has cause to be grinning, even if events in Egypt look like putting his baby to bed early.
The page on liberty and rights has been turned, he says. Although the bill doesn't achieve everything that he, or indeed campaigners, wanted, it is a good start and alters the tone of government by asserting – by implication – respect for the public's privacy and rights. Early in our interview, he says disarmingly, "I need to say this – you shouldn't trust any government, actually including this one. You should not trust government – full stop. The natural inclination of government is to hoard power and information; to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Back to where Labor began: Bob Carr

When the dust settles and learned discussion turns to the legacy of the ALP government (1995 - 2011), Labor's reform of the criminal justice system will surely rank as one of its' most important.

First, let us reflect on a few key numbers:
 - In 1995, the prison population of NSW was sitting at somewhere between 6000 and 7000. When Labor hand back the keys in a few weeks, that number will be pushing through 11 000; 
- In 1994, the rate at which we imprisoned New South Welshmen and women was 167.8 per 100, 000.  In 2011, it had risen to 196, which is almost double the rate of Victoria at 105;
-  The percentage of NSW prisoners on remand (unsentenced) rose from 9.6% to 22.8% in the same period;
- In 2010, NSW's Budget for Corrective Services exceeded $1 billion;
To appreciate the results of the Labor regime, it worth reflecting on the premiership of Bob Carr, under whom it all began. Most will recall that Carr came to power, and was re-elected twice, on the foundation of successful law and order campaigns. The phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", although borrowed from Tony Blair,  became firmly associated with his image, and also his agenda.

Indeed, Carr had no closer ally in his pursuit and retention of power than one Laura Norder; an alliance that went on to make fundamental and lasting change to the NSW criminal justice system. Most notably, sentencing laws were radically amended with the introduction of standard non-parole periods for a range of serious offences. The slow restriction of the law in relation to bail also began, making it much more difficult for accused persons to obtain liberty before matters finalise.

Carr, already an author with "Faultlines", is now a keen blogger and tweeter (@bobjcarr), and seems well aware his legacy is in the process of being assessed. In recent times, the early shots fired by Bob on his blog have been fascinating.

He recently cited with approval the British MP, John Spellar, who described the middle-portion of the electorate as follows:
They are law abiding and expect others to play by the rules. They want to live in a peaceful, orderly neighbourhood. If they do not, then they are hostile, both to the perpetrators and the authorities who permit it to happen.
Later Carr said in the same post:
By the way, the reason I adhered to explicit law and order policies as Premier was to hold the support of working class people who expect Labor governments to keep their streets safe and lock up the criminals who degrade life, especially in public housing estates, making existence hell for law-abiding citizens. If Labor parties spend more time apologising for the wrong-doers than they do backing law enforcement and community safety they run the danger of being crushed in a right-wing populist backlash.
With these words, Carr concedes what I imagine many have long thought, namely, that the objectives of his criminal justice policies were purely political: to soothe what he imagined to be a populace hostile to wrongdoers, to avoid a populist backlash, and retain power.

That he avoided a backlash by introducing his very own populist policies to lock up increasing numbers of people? Well, it seems that was just the necessary price to be paid. I mean better us than them, right?

The very narrow justification of his policies also seems to suggest he might have pursued another course had the Opposition not forced him into it. You see, it was all their fault!

In 2011, however, the Coalition appear to have distanced themselves from previous campaigns and policies, going so far as to explicitly reject a "law and order auction" election. So where does this leave Labor and the Carr Doctrine of Criminal Justice? How will ALP policies be justified in the absence of Opposition muck-raking?

The answer will be found in the current AG, John Hatzistergos, who can always be relied upon to defend Labor's record. Indeed, the Hatman rarely misses an opportunity to "make no apology" for their tough stance on crime, and increasing prison numbers, which he will claim are responsible for making us safer.

RG intends to examine his policies, as well as those of the Shadow Attorney-General Greg Smith, in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Labor screams green murder over cuts to preference lifeline

By Sean Nicholls, SMH, February 15, 2011:
LABOR has reacted furiously to a decision by the Greens not to direct preferences to the main parties at the state election, warning it will ''almost certainly'' deliver control of the upper house to the Coalition and conservative minor parties.
The Herald revealed on Saturday that the Greens had decided not to direct preferences to either Labor or Coalition candidates in the Legislative Council and in at least 30 seats in the Legislative Assembly.
''The decision of the Greens to not swap preferences with Labor will almost certainly deliver control of the upper house to Fred Nile, the Shooters Party, the Liberals and Nationals,'' said Labor's campaign spokesman and preferences negotiator, the upper house MP Luke Foley. ''Those right-wing parties will all swap preferences with each other.''
Mr Foley said the Greens were ''obsessed'' with beating Labor in lower house seats even if it was at the expense of a ''far right'' upper house.
''The Greens' hatred of Labor will deliver upper house control to the book burners and elephant shooters - people who are on a crusade to overturn environmental protection, let hunters rampage through national parks, bring back duck hunting, close the safe-injecting room and end ethics classes in schools,'' he said.
But the Greens' lead candidate for the Legislative Council, David Shoebridge, rejected Mr Foley's analysis.
He said that under the NSW system of optional preferential voting, preferences have had ''next to no impact'' on the make-up of the upper house.
''Our clear electoral approach to retain a progressive upper house that is not a rubber-stamp for the Coalition is to maximise the Green vote,'' Mr Shoebridge said. ''The NSW Labor machine is toxic to voters in NSW and the Greens want nothing to do with them.''

Head Case

By Christopher Beam, Slate, February 11 2011:
Crime rates have plummeted over the last 20 years. Why aren't we less scared?
When my grandfather learned I was going to college in New York City, he knew what to give me for a high-school graduation present: a hunting knife. If I was going to make it to class, he explained, I would probably have to defend myself. Never mind that this was 2002, and crime in New York City had plummeted since its high in the early 1990s. You could never be too careful.
His concern highlights the bizarre way we think about crime. Even as crime rates have gone down around the country over the last 20 years, our fear of crime hasn't changed much at all. Between 1990 and 2009, the national violent-crime rate was halved, while property crime dropped to 60 percent of its previous rate, according to the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data. But almost every year since 1989, most Americans have told pollsters they believe crime is getting worse.
The disparity has been especially clear in New York City. That city saw the most dramatic crime decline of all: Since 1990, the homicide rate has dropped 82 percent, robbery by 84 percent, rape by 77 percent, and auto theft a stunning 94 percent, according to the New York Police Department. These numbers have now been confirmed in an independent study by Frank Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley, who confirms that the drop in crime is "real."
But New Yorkers don't feel correspondingly safer. "If you walk these streets, especially at night, you know crime is definitely not down," a cab driver who lives in Harlem told the New York Daily News in 2009. "It's not safe. I don't know where they get these statistics." Same with Baltimore, where a statistical decline in crime is no match for the occasional sensational murder that reinforces the city's reputation as a dangerous town.

The MPs voting against prisoners, and 21st century civic death

By Afua Hirsch, The Guardian, 9 February 2011:
Giving prisoners the vote might be unpopular, but defying the European court of human rights would be criminal
John Hirst is not a sympathetic character. The 59-year old hacked his landlady to death with an axe in 1979, and was convicted of manslaughter after he successfully pleaded diminished responsibility on the basis of a personality disorder that rendered him amoral. Although Hirst's much discussed European court of human rights litigation "Hirst v UK" has caused an unprecedented row about the nature of the UK's relationship with the court in Strasbourg, that the man himself makes an uncompelling spokesperson for a cause is undeniable.
Hirst claimed that the prohibition on voting for prisoners was a violation of his fundamental rights. In 2005 the European court of human rights agreed – sort of. It said that the UK's law – a blanket ban on prisoners voting was wrong. When the government asked the court for guidance as to where exactly the line could be drawn in determining which prisoners should be given the vote and which shouldn't, the court declined to provide it.
"It is primarily for the state concerned to choose… the means to be used in its domestic legal order," the court said.
In other words, the court said that while a blanket ban is a violation of the right of the state's obligation to take a proactive role in facilitating free elections, how UK law should change to remedy the situation is for the democratically elected legislature – parliament – to decide.
You wouldn't know that, given the frenzied debate about the court encroaching on our legal system this week. Faced with the prospect of unpopular legislation being demanded by some "Europeans", all three branches of state – the government, MPs, and judges – have obediently taken their cue to start Strasbourg-bashing. Next up is a backbench Commons debate tabled by Conservative MP David Davis, demanding that the UK should defy the court and continue to deprive all prisoners of the vote.
Given that David Davis is probably best known outside parliament for his track record in defending civil liberties, it is one of many ironies about a Westminster movement against letting prisoners vote that he should be a key protagonist. The circus surrounding prisoners voting rights is all part of the upside-down world where the Tories stand up for human rights, and otherwise civil liberties-defending politicians continue to resist them.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Limited Benefit of Prison in Controlling Crime

Anyone interested in criminal justice policy in NSW should read this excellent article, entitled "The Limited Benefit of Prison in Controlling Crime", published in Current Issues in Criminal Justice, and written by Professor David Brown of UNSW. 

Brown questions the relationship between imprisonment and crime rates, and makes particular reference to developments in the UK and US, where reductions in prison populations are already occurring, in part due to the concept of 'justice reinvestment'.

It also refers to the NSW Election 2011 and the policy options for this State. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A long, hard look inside our jails would benefit all of us

By Cynthia Banham, SMH, 4 February 2011:
One of the most telling commentaries on all that is wrong with prisons was made recently by American law professor David Cole. ''We commit offenders to such places precisely so we will not have to pay attention to them,'' he wrote in an article for the New York Review of Books.
In Australia since the 1980s, state - and sometimes federal - politicians have campaigned relentlessly on simplistic ''tough on crime'' platforms. They would have you believe that locking up criminals is the answer to all society's ills.
It is precisely this ''out of sight, out of mind'' approach that Cole is talking about in regard to the US prison system, but politicians have distorted expectations and understandings of what imprisoning people can achieve.
While there is no argument that society needs prisons to protect it from violent criminals, there is a growing realisation here, and in the US and Britain, that for other offenders it isn't really working.

US Supreme Court likely to uphold California prison population cap

By Julie Small, Southern California Public Radio, 1 December 2010:
Last year three federal judges ordered California to reduce overcrowding they said deprived inmates of adequate medical and mental health care. California appealed that order to the nation’s highest court, which on Tuesday heard oral arguments on the state’s appeal. The US Supreme Court appears likely to uphold the population cap for California’s prisons.
Last year when three federal judges ordered California to reduce its prisoner population by a third — about 40,000 inmates — they said that was the only way to remedy chronic problems with inmates’ medical and mental healthcare, exacerbated by severe overcrowding in state prisons.
Prisoners dying, committing suicide, “and spending time in feces-smeared cells because there’s no room for them in other areas,” are the conditions the inmates’ attorney Don Specter described in briefs and in oral arguments.
He said the problems result in one inmate death every week and a suicide rate double the national average. On the steps of the courthouse after the hearing, Specter said most Supreme Court justices indicated that they had a clear picture of the risks overcrowding poses to inmates and prison staff. Specter said California prison officials admit as much.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tough on crime, tough on the budget's bottom line

By James Eyers, AFR, 30 October 2010:

Increasingly punitive laws come at a high price for the taxpayer. 

Given the soaring costs of incarceration, it is peculiar that economics doesn't feature prominently in the law and order debate.

It costs an average of $205.94 a day, or $75,168 a year, to keep an offender in a NSW jail. So as the state's prison population soars – in the past decade the number of inmates held in full-time custody in NSW has  increased by 47 per cent to 10,068 – the burden on the government's coffers has also grown to the point where the NSW Department of Corrective Services spent $1.09 billion in the 2008-09 financial year, including the costs of building new jails.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 29,317 people were being held in full-time custody in Australia in mid-2009, a figure 35 per cent higher than a decade earlier. Nationally, the net operating expenditure and capital costs of prisons is $2.8 billion, stated a report this year by the Productivity Commission. Five years ago, it was $1.8 billion.

Despite the substantial spend, research about whether locking people up helps to reduce crime is thin on the ground. Nor has a significant evaluation been conducted on whether alternatives to prison are more effective at rehabilitating offenders, although many people think they are. "The question the public needs to have answered is what is the return on that investment? What are we getting back?" says Don Weatherburn, director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

"We do not know whether the imposition of tougher penalties exerts a general deterrent or not. We have very little objective information on which types of Australian correctional program are effective in reducing reoffending and which are not," says Weatherburn. "We have very little information on what contribution, if any, rising imprisonment rates have made to the fall in Australian crime. The lack of information on these issues is a serious impediment to the development of effective policy."

Nevertheless, many state political leaders maintain a penchant for stirring up community fears about crime and announcing tougher law and order policies – longer sentences, more police – as "solutions" to make their constituents feel safer.

Yet the steep rise in the number of prisoners across the country is not due to increasing crime rates. In the past decade, all property crime, including robbery, has fallen nationally by 47 per cent, while assault levels have remained stable, says Weatherburn. Rather, rising imprisonment rates are largely a product of government policies including tougher bail laws and the introduction of standard non-parole periods.

Courts are also sentencing more convicted persons to jail terms.

"In the politics of law and order, no would-be government wants to be outflanked in terms of being tough on crime," he says. "Right around the country, politicians are grappling with the fact that regardless of whether crime is going down – and it is in most states – the public think it is going up and the justice system is failing to adequately deal with it."