Our convict state - one in 600 behind bars

Sydney Morning Herald
January 03, 2006

By Jonathan Pearlman

TOUGHER sentences, stricter bail laws and a crackdown on repeat offenders have led to a surge in the state's prison population.

About one in 600 adults in NSW are in jail - a rate that has almost doubled since 1986, according to figures from the Department of Corrective Services.

The number of prisoners increased by 7 per cent last year to more than 9000 - the largest rise since the introduction of sentencing guideline judgements in 1998.

The State Government has repeatedly raised maximum sentences and imposed stricter bail laws in recent years in response to community and media concerns about crime rates.

The latest crackdown happened last month when the Premier, Morris Iemma, responding to the Cronulla riots, doubled the sentence for affray and removed the presumption in favour of bail for those charged with riot, affray and violent disorder.

More than half of prisoners are serving sentences of longer than two years, while more than one in 50 indigenous men in NSW - or 1555 people - is in prison.

The director of the NSW Institute of Criminology, Chris Cunneen, said tougher bail laws had turned jails into "large-scale warehouses" and reduced the chances of rehabilitation. "There has been a huge increase in the remand population, which is not only expensive but raises moral questions about removing people's liberties when they have not been convicted of an offence," he said.

NSW prisons have Australia's highest reoffending rates and allow inmates fewer hours out of cells than any other state, a report by the NSW Auditor-General found in November.

Professor Cunneen said: "You could argue that you're providing community protection by putting people into custody but you are not providing any rehabilitation impact."

Aside from NSW, Tasmania and Western Australia were the only other states with increases in prisoner numbers last year. Western Australia hopes to combat the rise by abolishing sentences of less than six months - something the NSW Attorney-General, Bob Debus, has rejected.

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics director, Dr Don Weatherburn, said police strategies and bail laws had led to the increase in prisoners. "Police over the last few years have put a lot of energy into targeting repeat offenders, and those people are more likely to go to jail because they have prior convictions," he said.

Professor Cunneen said the bail laws had increased the imprisonment of Aborigines because many were unable to meet accommodation and supervision requirements. "The changes in bail laws particularly affect marginalised groups, because they are less likely to be employed or at school," he said.

The number of indigenous prisoners rose about 8 per cent to 1732, according to the department's annual report. Only Western Australia has a higher rate of indigenous imprisonment.

The report said the annual prison population has increased by 400 prisoners for the past seven years - equivalent to one extra jail a year.


Media articles are posted for the purpose of criticism, comment, scholarship and research under "fair use" provisions and may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owners, except for "fair use."