Crime is going down in NSW but inmate numbers are skyrocketing, old prisons are reopening and it’s almost election time. Should we be worried?

After three years of dropping numbers, the prison population in NSW rose to over 10,500 between 2012 and 2014. The maximum capacity of NSW prisons is 11,000. Crime rates are mostly falling but changes in bail laws and higher rates of arrest and incarceration mean the numbers behind bars are likely to keep growing. Attempts are being made on several fronts to raise the maximum capacity of NSW prisons but it seems little is being suggested to reduce the numbers of those being incarcerated, and yet, rolling changes to bail laws seem designed to increase the prison population.

The NSW Liberal government is framing rising prisoner numbers as increasing community safety, but isn’t mentioning the falling crime rates. In the lead up to the March election, we need to be asking why.

The rates of most crimes have been dropping steadily since 2009, the last year that Labor held power in NSW. Dangerous crimes have been decreasing for five years: assault is down by 2.7% a year, homicide by 4.1%, theft by 1.9% and robbery by 11.2%, making NSW ‘on paper’ a safer place to live. Some crimes have risen, such as sexual (2.5% increase), drug (9.2%), weapons (9.9%) and pornography offences (12%). Numbers of prisoners hit a peak of 11,127 in 2009 then fell to 9,645 in 2012. However, as dangerous crime rates continued to drop, the prison population rose again by 3% to 9,897 in 2013 and another 7% to 10,566 in 2014. The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) predict that based on current trends prisoner numbers will rise to over 15,000 by March 2016.

In light of the disparity between crime and imprisonment rates, it’s vital to question why more people are going to and staying in prison when the rate of crime is dropping.

(Image: https://au.prime7.yahoo.com/a1/news/a/-/local/10197648/kirkconnell-prison-to-be-shut-down/)

Prison is an industry, and the increases in prisoner numbers make good business sense. To deal with the rise in inmate numbers, the NSW Attorney-General announced in February that $10 million dollars will be spent on inmate-built ‘modular cells’, and that the Kirkconnell Prison outside of Bathurst will be reopened at a cost of $4 million. These projects will boost the NSW maximum capacity by 420 beds. The Kirkonnell reopening has been applauded as ‘a great outcome for the region and a welcome boost to the local economy’. The savings of getting the prisoners to build the demountable modular cells also makes sense, with the state saving $125,000 on each cell by using inmate labour. Making more prison beds makes good financial sense, if you can write off the cost of the actual incarceration ($305 per day for an adult or $652 for a juvenile).

Hazzard’s ‘tough on crime’ face (Image: http://www.dailyliberal.com.au/story/2613909/gallery-the-week-that-was-in-the-central-west/)

There is also political capital in the capacity increases, with the above announcements citing investments in ‘community safety’ and the Baird government’s assurances that if prisoner numbers increased, they’d make room for them, which seems like they’ve been preparing for numbers to go up rather than giving any thought to reducing prison receptions. With the change from the O’Farrell to Baird Liberal government in 2012, there was also a change in attorney-general from ‘marshmallow Greg Smith’, who saw sentencing and a growing prison population as a ‘disgrace’, to the ‘moderate, sensible, realistic’ Brad Hazzard ,who promised a ‘holistic approach’ to justice which the ‘community will have confidence in’. Since moving into the role, Hazzard has been spruiking increased prison numbers as building ‘community safety’, saying ‘everything is on the table’ when it comes to finding space for new prisoners, and has linked the rise in prison populations to increased public confidence in the justice system. However, Hazzard has been remarkably silent on the topic of reducing prisoner numbers or falling crime rates.

Keeping more people in prison apparently makes some kind of economic and political sense, but shouldn’t it be the case that the maximum capacity of prisons is calculated more on crime rates rather than job creation or political ideology? What justifications, if not crime rates, have been used to keep the numbers rising despite drops in crime?

(Image: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/getting-tough-on-crime-isnt-cheap-or-simple-20140426-37b5j.html)

The NSW Liberal government has been tightening bail laws since taking power in 2011, making rolling changes that have been criticised by advocacy groups, lawyers and the NSW Greens. Of great concern among all the changes is the removal of ‘presumption of innocence’ for some charges, with the onus falling on the defence to ‘show cause’ for why they should be released on bail. Three out of the four categories that have seen rises in crime (sexual, weapons and drug offences) all fall under the new ‘show cause’ rules. Some argue that there is now a presumption against bail for anyone who poses a risk to society, with it being left to the defence to prove this lack of risk.

In February 2015, it was announced by the Prime Minister that changes are to be enacted ‘compelling authorities to refuse bail where they are satisfied an accused person is an identified terrorist risk’. As a knee-jerk reaction to the Martin Place siege, these changes feed into the fear-based politicking we’ve come to expect from both state and federal Liberal governments.

The changes to the NSW bail system implemented since 2011 are not the only factor increasing prisoner numbers in NSW, but they need to be questioned.

As NSW prepares to go to the polls on March 28, the current Baird Liberal Government is framing the increase in prison beds as ‘responsible government’ ‘keeping our community safe’. However, as the Government’s legislative changes are increasing the prison numbers, and their new approaches directly contradict advice and warnings given by the Public Service Association (PSA), questions need to be asked about the usefulness of the planned maximum capacity increases.

With prison populations creeping up across the nation, it might just be time to start thinking of some ways to lower the numbers going inside, instead of finding new ways to lock people up and bolstering the prison industry.

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