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Community corrections changes could reduce prisoner number increase

A new sentencing option has been described as "a custodial sentence which may be served in the community".

I was pleasantly surprised a couple of weeks ago when I received a message from a senior academic at the Australian National University, who suggested that he and some of his colleagues would like to have my views on the use of community service orders in the ACT. Specifically, he asked me to prepare an opinion piece on this subject, and also suggested that I "think about the issue of non-custodial sentencing options, how well they are applied and what they actually entail".

Even though I had a number of others issues on my mind at the time, I told him that I would like very much to do this as I have been convinced for many years that the total package of non-custodial correctional orders provides a possible key to keeping prisoner numbers down to a reasonable level. I also realised that it might take some time for me to collect the basic facts and figures needed for this exercise.

A few days later, after I had contacted people who really know this subject, I was rather surprised to learn that there is no such penalty as a community service order in the ACT, but that a proportion of the offenders sentenced to good behaviour orders have a condition that requires them to undertake community service work. I also learned that currently very significant changes are being made to the whole field of community-based corrections.

One of the relevant factors leading to these reforms is the ending of the periodic detention option, which generally required offenders to spend two nights a week in custody. Much more significant than this, however, is the introduction of a totally new sentencing option, the intensive correction order, often referred to simply as the ICO. The relevant legislation will activate this option in March 2016 but it will not be fully operational for around eight weeks, as each case must be assessed in close detail to ensure that the offender is suitably motivated to withstand the rigorous pressure imposed on those serving this option. 

The ICO option will only be available to offenders who have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment of "up to two years and in some exceptional circumstances four years". It has been described as "a custodial sentence which may be served in the community" which is a neat summary, even though it contains an obvious contradiction. The assessment can take place if the offender is still in custody or if he or she is on bail in the community. 

During the assessment period the offender will have a minimum of one face-to-face case management meeting each week and four home or field visits. (The thoroughness of the assessment is shown by the fact that co-residents of the offenders must provide written consent of their agreement to co-operate with the requirements of the sentence.) The assessment will also include a number of written instruments that endeavour to establish of risk and motivation for each case.

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Once admitted to the ICO program offenders will participate in an induction program, which largely comprises a group discussion of the rights and obligations of ICO participants. Four levels intensity of interventions are envisaged. All ICO offenders will commence at Stage 1, which has the highest level of intensity of interventions. Depending on the level of co-operation and motivation, the offenders may be moved down the supervision scale until they reach Stage 4, which requires only one meeting with a community corrections officer every two weeks and a home visit every two months. The majority of OCI offenders are expected, however, to remain at Stage 1 or 2 throughout the lifetime the order.

No one should realistically expect that the program will be overwhelmingly successful and some degree of relapse is only to be expected. For this reason a very detailed procedure has been developed for responding in a constructive way to any breaches that occur. Space does not allow for these details to be reproduced here, but they are all handled by the independent Sentence Administration Board, the ACT equivalent to the parole boards in other Australian jurisdictions.

I am aware of the argument made by some legal bodies suggesting that breaches of ICOs should be referred back to the original sentencing court as they may result in additional time in prison being imposed. I would be sympathetic to this argument if the breach led to a longer sentence than the original period of imprisonment that was named by the court. The breach procedures that have been explained to me could not have that result. Furthermore, the managers of the ICO program are fully aware of the need to allow "credit for clean street time," as some Americans are wont to say.

At the time of writing there were a total of approximately 935 offenders serving various types of non-custodial sentences in the ACT and there were about 420 prisoners in the Alexander Maconochie Centre. The easiest way to judge whether or not the ICO option has been successful may be determined by focussing on these two numbers: the first should go up and the second should come down, or at least stop increasing at the rate we have seen in the past few years. A comprehensive evaluation of the total program is also envisaged.

The total program is a unique attempt to deflect many serious offenders away from crime by addressing the causal factors that are relevant in each case. For what it is worth, it has my whole-hearted support and I wish all of the community corrections officers involved every success in their challenging work.

 David Biles is a semi-retired criminologist who lives in Canberra. He acknowledges the advice given to him by Janet-Lee Hibberd and Victor Martin.