Opinion: NSW leads while Victoria makes mistakes
Hugh de Kretser
The Drum, 24 January 2012
Appearing "tough on crime" is as easy as promising more police and longer prison sentences. Dealing with the economic and social costs of punitive populism is much harder.
NSW has learned this lesson the hard way. Victoria is headed in the wrong direction.
The last Victorian and NSW elections were a study in contrasts on law and order politics. In Victoria, the Liberals criticised "hopelessly inadequate sentences" and promised longer prison terms and reduced court discretion. Across the border, their NSW counterparts acknowledged that "lock them up and throw away the key just doesn't work" and promised to focus on cutting reoffending instead.
A year on, the Victorian policy shift looks likely to saddle the state with a prison legacy that will suck billions of much needed taxpayer funds into a populist policy sinkhole. NSW in contrast, is cutting its prison population, closing jails and investing in reoffending reduction programs.
The Australian prison population has risen sharply over the past decade, outstripping population growth. Victoria's imprisonment rate is low compared with other states, yet it has experienced rapid prisoner growth, with numbers increasing 44 per cent over the decade.
The increase in Victorian prisoner numbers has been attributed by the Ombudsman and others to more punitive sentencing (Victorian courts were already handing out longer jail terms well before the election). Victoria's jails are at capacity and the Parole Board recently warned of emerging problems of overcrowding.
This rapid growth is predicted to continue. In 2010, the previous Victorian Labor government estimated that prisoner numbers would increase a further 45 per cent over the decade, costing billions of dollars in prison construction and operation. The Coalition's new policies, like abolishing suspended sentences and mandatory minimum jail terms, will accelerate this increase.
A recent Victorian Justice Department report acknowledged these reforms will be the "main driver of growth in prison bed demand." Not increases in crime rates – Victoria Police data shows overall crime has been falling for a decade – but harsher sentencing policies.
NSW has for many years locked up people at close to twice the rate of Victoria, costing hundreds of millions in additional prison spending each year. Yet its crime rate isn't any lower. The NSW Coalition Government recognises this and is reviewing policies that caused unnecessary and costly over imprisonment and focusing its energy and resources on breaking the cycle of crime. It recently announced the closure of three prisons, saving $26 million a year, following an unprecedented 8 per cent drop in its prison population. Queensland and Western Australia also experienced decreases, leading to the first annual drop in Australian prisoner numbers since 2001.
Criminal justice policy - how we choose to respond to crime - plays a key role in influencing prisoner numbers. Too often, policy is driven by myths that courts don't get it right and perceptions that longer jail terms will make us safer. The inconvenient truth is that longer jails terms are incredibly expensive, don't deter would-be offenders and can increase the chances of reoffending. Repeated studies point to the criminogenic impact of prison. The failure of prisons to rehabilitate is borne out by statistics showing that more than half of Australian prisoners have been in prison before.
Crime can have a devastating impact on lives. We need to do more to cut crime and protect the public. But rather than focus on blunt, costly and potentially counterproductive prison expansion which responds after the damage is done, we need to invest in value for money programs which prevent crime. Preventing child neglect, housing for released prisoners and sentencing programs that address the underlying causes of crime are just some of the cost effective measures that have been shown to cut crime.
And for those who think we can do both – increase both prison and prevention – the signs in Victoria are that the multi-billion dollar appetite for more prisons is eating up funds that might otherwise be available for prevention.
In recent months, the Victorian Government has cut occasional child care which supports struggling families, cut the effective VCAL program which provides high school equivalent education for at-risk youth, and cut a successful program that helped women exiting prison find work. The VCAL cuts in particular are short sighted when you consider the link between low education and crime - only 6.5 per cent of male Victorian prisoners finished high school or its equivalent.
Before the NSW election, now Attorney-General (and former prosecutor) Greg Smith acknowledged,
Building more prisons...is expensive and does little to make a better society. This state cannot afford to keep incarcerating more people, and spending will have to shift to reducing incarceration rates.
It's a costly lesson Victoria should learn from.
Hugh de Kretser is the Executive Officer of the Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres and spokesperson for Smart Justice.