Anna Patty | SMH | March 14, 2012
LENGTHENING prison terms will do nothing to reduce crime in NSW, one of the most comprehensive reports on the criminal justice system conducted in Australia shows.
The study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that increasing the risk of arrest and imprisonment were much more effective.
Another major reason for falls in crime in the past decade was an improved economy and employment levels, which provided strong disincentives to crime. A 10 per cent increase in household income was estimated to produce an 18.9 per cent reduction in property crime and a 14.6 per cent reduction in violent crime.
The bureau's director, Don Weatherburn, said the study suggested governments should focus more on strategies to increase the risk of arrest and less on increasing the severity of punishments.
The study looked at whether Australian taxpayers were getting value for the $11.5 billion they spend each year on law and order.
It reviewed changes in the risk of arrest, the likelihood of prison and the average prison term on trends in property and violent crime across all 153 local government areas in NSW between 1996 and 2008.
''Increasing the risk of arrest and the likelihood of going to prison produces modest reductions in property and violent crime,'' Dr Weatherburn said. ''But increasing the length of prison sentences exerts no effect at all.''
The effect of income on property crime was more than 14 times larger than that of arrest, while its effect on violent crime was nearly five times larger.
''The best crime prevention tool in the long run is not tougher penalties or more police or better rehabilitation programs, it's a strong and vibrant economy,'' Dr Weatherburn said.
If governments wanted to spend less on prison without suffering an increase in crime they needed to look for ways of stopping people reoffending and returning to prison.
''If we just divert people from prison and do nothing to stop them reoffending, the money we save on prison will be spent responding to an increase in crime,'' he said.
The Attorney-General, Greg Smith, said the study results confirmed the O'Farrell government's approach to law and order.
''While serious and violent offenders - like those involved in the recent drive-by shootings - deserve to be locked up for a very long time, that doesn't mean you take the same approach for all criminals,'' he said.
''If we can reduce the money we spend on prisons for example and look for other ways to sentence people for less serious offences, then we will have more money to spend on schools, hospitals and roads.''
The Opposition Leader, John Robertson, said police can only increase the likelihood of arrests if they are properly staffed. ''Yet the O'Farrell government has cut 80 police officers from south-west Sydney stations dealing with drive-by shootings,'' he said.
The NSW Greens MP and justice spokesman, David Shoebridge, said the new figures showed reducing income inequality had a greater effect on reducing crime than money spent on the criminal justice system.
''In terms of bang for the buck, it is clear that the best way of cutting crime is to reduce poverty and tackle income inequality.''