New NSW Attorney General Greg Smith wants sweeping reforms of the state's over-crowded prison system.
TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Over the past decade, the New South Wales prison population has soared as politicians, pressure groups and media have called for longer sentences and tougher bail laws.
NSW is well behind Victoria when it comes to diverting offenders away from the prison system and reducing the rate of re-offending.
With the Liberal Party now in power in NSW, the new Attorney General Greg Smith wants to bring sweeping reforms to the state's prison system and reduce Australia's largest jail population.
John Stewart reports.
JOHN STEWART, REPORTER: In NSW, longer sentences and tougher bail laws have produced a booming prison population. There are now more than 10,000 inmates. The NSW imprisonment rate is about twice that of Victoria and changes to the state's bail laws have also seen a sharp rise in the juvenile prison population.
The state's new Attorney General, Greg Smith, says he's determined to change the system.
GREG SMITH, NSW ATTORNEY GENERAL: A couple of years ago, premier Nathan Rees seemed to think it was a badge of honour to have over 10,000 people in the jails. I thought it was a disgrace. And it just reflects either that we've got a lot more crime in this state or that somehow our policies on sentencing and that have been skewed.
JOHN STEWART: More than half of all Australian prisons are in NSW. It's a system which costs taxpayers more than $1 billion a year to build and maintain. Greg Smith says he'll review the state's Bail Act and consider non-custodial sentences and new drug treatment programs.
GREG SMITH: We need to divert as many people as we can from the system, people with problems, such as people with mental issues, and in the case of people with drug addiction and that, I want to set up a 300-bed, serious drug place where we can rehabilitate them intensively so that we can get them off drugs. Now you'd have to follow that up with I think probably NGOs in the main, non-government organisations, helping them after they leave prison, get a job and find somewhere to live.
JOHN STEWART: Harold Sperling is a former Supreme Court judge. During the past decade he's watched with alarm as the NSW prison population continued to climb.
HAROLD SPERLING, CRIME AND JUSTICE REFORM COMMITTEE: Increasing at about five per cent per annum over the last 10 years. If we keep on going at that pace, we'll be like California, with more money being spent on prisons than being spent on education. Now that's just not sustainable.
JOHN STEWART: Mr Sperling is now campaigning to reform criminal laws and the state's prisons.
HAROLD SPERLING: There are four times as many juveniles in detention awaiting trial in NSW as there are in Victoria. There are almost twice as many adults in prison in NSW as there are in Victoria, and the crime rates are no different.
JOHN STEWART: The man in charge of the state's gaols, Commissioner Ron Woodham, has been working in the prison system for over 40 years. He's been in the top job since 2002 and has a reputation for being tough on prisoners and keeping a lid on the system.
The new Attorney General's plans for sweeping reforms include greater scrutiny of Woodham's administration.
GREG SMITH: Well I don't expect that Mr Woodham wants to retire or will retire at this stage. We'll see how we can work together. I think I'm putting a lot of reforms up that seem to go against the culture that's existed in recent years such as an inspector of corrections. That position was previously abolished.
JOHN STEWART: Greg Smith is not all sweetness and light. He's also talking about jailing repeat offender graffiti artists, a crime which he says is not investigated enough.
John Stewart, Lateline.