Thursday, June 16, 2011

More jails will not mean less crime

Editorial | The Age | June 11, 2011
AS EVERY politician knows, there are votes to be had in being tough on crime, or at least in being thought to be so. And it is just as much a part of the received political wisdom that there are no votes to be had in extending and modernising prisons or building new ones, because that is easily portrayed as being soft on prisoners. The problem, of course, is that policies regarded as showing ''toughness'' on crime are likely to result in an increase in the prison population, who must be properly housed, fed and, if they are not to re-offend on completion of their sentences, rehabilitated. Victoria's Baillieu government is here in a bind of its own making.
Having won office vowing to crack down on crime, the government has since been busily turning that vow into legislation. Judges will no longer be able to suspend the sentences of adults convicted of serious crimes, and 16 and 17-year-olds convicted of crimes involving gross violence face mandatory jail terms. As Attorney-General Robert Clark has said, ''We are determined to make clear that jail means jail''. And Corrections Minister Andrew McIntosh has conceded that the government's agenda means there will be more prisoners: ''Of course that [Coalition policy] meant there was clearly going to be an increase in the number of prison beds that we would have to provide.'' Why, then, did the government slip into last month's budget, without fanfare of any kind, an announcement that it will build a new men's prison, with $2 million allocated for a study of the business case for the prison? It was as if the government was hoping that this might be overlooked.
As Royce Millar, of the Age investigations unit, reports today, the government's coyness almost certainly derives from the same instinct that drove the Brumby government to keep quiet about its refusal of a Corrections Victoria plan for building a new 800-bed men's prison and a new 550-bed women's prison as public-private partnerships, at a construction cost of approximately $550 million each and an operating cost that would run into billions over decades. Simply, there are no votes in prisons. Yet the previous government was acutely aware of overcrowding in the state's 13 existing prisons, because, under pressure from Coalition criticism and media reporting, it, too, had been ''getting tough'' on crime. Victoria's incarceration rate, with 105 prisoners per 100,000 of the population, is lower than the national average of 170 per 100,000, but in the past decade the prison population has soared by almost 50 per cent, triple the rate of general population growth. Last year the cost of maintaining a prisoner in Victoria's jails was $300 a day, more than in any other state or territory except Tasmania and the ACT, and the Baillieu government's swelling of the prison population will require a huge blowout in the corrections budget.
The real cost, however, will be measured not in dollars but in the self-defeating nature of the policy itself. As ''get tough'' governments around the world have increasingly found, the consequence of relying on incarceration with mandatory terms as the answer to crime is more prisoners, not greater public safety, because the experience of jail is more likely to harden young offenders than to rehabilitate them. If courts are to respond effectively to rising crime, they need to retain the discretion in sentencing that the Baillieu government is so intent on removing from them.

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