Thursday, February 9, 2012

Prison plan always on the cards

Heath Aston | SMH | January 29, 2012

BEFORE entering politics, Greg Smith spent a career in the courtroom as a Crown prosecutor. So he knows a thing or two about how words can be twisted to suit a purpose.

But even he must have been surprised by the tenuousness of the recent attacks on him for supposedly going soft on crime. The NSW Attorney-General was in the sights of the tabloid press and talkback radio last week for asking the Law Reform Commission to find ways to reduce the headcount in prisons.

Any move to alter the Crimes Act and increase non-custodial sentences is obviously one of extreme public interest and should be debated thoroughly. But the story quickly evolved into how Smith had been a tough talker in opposition only to turn into a big softie in government. Quotes were dug out that seemed to portray the Attorney-General as having been an old-school ''lock-'em-up'' conservative while in opposition.

The truth is basically the opposite.

Take the very first line of a story I wrote in July 2010: ''A Coalition state government would slash the NSW prison population by a fifth by taking prisoners with mental-health problems out of the criminal justice system and reducing sentences for a range of 'less serious' crimes.

''Shadow attorney-general Greg Smith said he was planning to reduce the headcount inside NSW jails, which is set to push past 11,000 …

''The Coalition's reformist agenda, which would reduce sentences for minor drug offences, minor assaults, theft and fraud, is part of a calculated gamble to prevent the election in March descending into the traditional law-and-order auction for who can crack down hardest on crime.''

There were numerous other articles that covered Smith's desire to reduce the number of graduates from the ''universities of crime'' he considers adult jails to be.

The reality is zero tolerance is a vote-winner in NSW and has been for decades.

NSW has twice the rate of imprisonment of Victoria. As a consequence, we are forced to operate more than 50 jails to that state's 14.

If reason is needed to at least look at reducing detention, consider that it costs NSW taxpayers $75,000 a year for every person kept in jail.

Nevertheless, the Attorney-General should rightly face questions as to why more criminals should be allowed out on the streets. But he also deserves a fair hearing.

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