Friday, March 25, 2011

Time for NSW to escape the penal colony

By Richard, Ackland, SMH, 1 March 2011:
Someone get a gavel. Any minute now the bidders will arrive for the latest law and order auction. 'Do I hear ''Life sentence'', anyone?'

THE prospect of a NSW election without a strong dose of law'n'order doesn't seem right. The restraint was promised by both sides, but it's inevitable that they will fall off the wagon. Greg Smith, the shadow attorney-general, has already shown what he's made of with a promise of mandatory life sentences for cop killers.
I thought that had already been promised in an earlier auction. Indeed it was. It's a dusted down version of an old Peter Debnam promise.
There was anger in 2006 that the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed a conviction for the murder of a police officer. The then premier, Morris Iemma, was so livid he said he was considering the introduction of re-education programs for judges.
As it is, you only get 25 years' non-parole if you murder a judge. Same for killing a police officer. Presumably when the Liberals speak of life sentences, they don't mean anything as soft as 25 years.
After the Cronulla disturbances in 2005 Iemma advocated top-up prison sentences for anyone who attacked a surf lifesaver. The possibilities for the sentencing of special categories of victims are limitless. Maybe lighter sentences for those who slay columnists or disc jockeys would be an attractive vote getter.
Under a no-nonsense O'Farrell government young graffiti artists will no longer be subject to police discretion. If caught spraying and daubing on walls it will be straight off to court. The courts will be empowered to cancel ''graffiti vandals''' driver's licences or extend the time they are provisional drivers.
Presumably they'll be allowed to keep their skateboards.
Smith was quoted last year as saying: ''I understand that the culture hasn't been to jail [graffiti offenders] and we've got to change that culture, otherwise our city is just going to be an … eyesore.''
Rock throwers and knife carriers are next.
Labor has yet to announce its law and justice policy. It has unveiled a proposal to introduce new laws to target serious crime ''committed in groups''. Watch out for legislation dealing with ''complicity''.
There was also legislation to allow courts to detain new categories of violent offenders beyond their term of imprisonment. The Liberals don't disagree with that. So far, though, we're seeing a softer John Hatzistergos and a milder Greg Smith.
Smith admits he's been on quite a journey. He was once a ''headkicking prosecutor … I defended life imprisonment. I fitted in with that hard-line genre''.
At a recent gathering conducted by the Community Justice Coalition, Smith conceded that years of punitive rhetoric and policies have ''done a lot of harm … It has turned a reasonably enlightened prison system into a penal colony''.
The factor that lies at the heart of the policy debate and whether we are actually getting anywhere is the rate of recidivism in NSW, the rate at which people who have been in prison come out and reoffend.
With 10,000 inmates in the state's jails and with 44 per cent of prisoners reoffending within two years of release it states the bleeding obvious to say that the punitive approach has not worked.
The Attorney-General wearily contends that the tough stuff bears fruit. Crime rates overall are stable or falling, average time spent on remand has fallen, reoffending is 5 per cent lower than two years ago.
Actually, murder and property crime are down while assaults and sexual assaults are rising, even though in statistical terms they are regarded as ''stable''.
Importantly, the Attorney-General says female prisoners on his watch have learnt about ''washing, cooking, cleaning and caring for others''.
These are tiny dividends for such a large investment. Running the prisons costs the state $1 billion a year, and the rate at which people are being incarcerated requires regular construction of correctional facilities. At the same time the length of sentences handed down by the courts has been heading steadily upwards.
Our southern neighbour has 14 ''custodial facilities'' while we need 57. The rate of imprisonment in Victoria is about half the rate in NSW, and yet there is no appreciable difference in rates of offending. Last month the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research attributed the difference to a higher rate of court appearances in NSW, a higher likelihood of conviction, a higher rate of remand and greater use of imprisonment as a justice outcome.
Prisons are crime factories, and yet the Attorney-General doggedly clings to the pernicious bail laws, which make it harder to be released pending trial. More and more categories of crime are added to the list where the presumption in favour of bail is abolished.
The legislation also basically allows only a single application for bail per prisoner. Hatzistergos's 2010 Bail Bill does not repair the vice.
The Greens' law and justice spokesman, the barrister David Shoebridge, MLC, says that 80 per cent of the young people who are put on remand are either found not guilty or given a non-custodial sentence.
It's worse if you are an Aborigine. They comprise almost half of juvenile prisoners.
Stiffer bail requirements and truth in sentencing were the products of earlier law and order auctions. The outcome: longer sentences, more offences, less bail, more crime.
Slowly the penny is dropping. ''Justice reinvestment'' is the latest political buzz phrase. It's on everyone's lips, and there'll be plenty of promises about pilot programs, rehabilitation and prevention in the campaign ahead.
The last state budget allocated only an additional $3 million to a total of $27 million in rehabilitation and diversionary programs. More could be squirrelled out of police and correctional services budgets.
Soft edges to hard policies can be discovered all over the place. The Minister for Corrective Services, Phillip Costa, has a program that allows imprisoned mothers to send home to their children DVDs of themselves reading stories.
There is across-the-board, in-principle support for the proposal by the prisoner advocate Brett Collins for computers in cells.
The opposition supports a trial needle exchange program for prisons, the government doesn't. The Liberals have also promised to set up a ''drug prison'' within a prison. This is not on Labor's agenda.
Then, of course, there is the daily diet of tabloid terror headlines, such as ''Criminals get free run as justice fails'' … ''Stabbings skyrocket as knives plague city'' … ''Kid crime rampage''.
Whether the tabloids and the tub-thumpers of commercial radio allow politicians to get away with a more enlightened agenda is another thing altogether.

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