A model prison system
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A model prison system

The ACT's correctional regime should be a benchmark for other Australian jurisdictions.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics' latest national correctional data, which take us up to September last year, presents a disappointing picture, as the beginnings of a fall in the number of people in jail, which I reported in these pages in April and June last year, seem to have petered out. NSW is the only jurisdiction in which the decline in numbers is still occurring, and it has lost only about 200 prisoners in the past 12 months.

A model prison system

A model prison system

In the rest of Australia, prisoner numbers increased in the 12 months to September 2011, and these increases have more the cancelled out the gains made in NSW. This has left the Australian total almost 600 higher than it was one year earlier. If these numbers are converted to rates showing prisoners per 100,000 of the adult population, the picture is almost identical with the national rate, increasing from 165.7 to 166.3.

Even here in the ACT, the rate increased over this period from 76.7 to 84.2, which is still by far the lowest adult imprisonment rate in Australia. This is a matter of some relief as a number of commentators, myself included, had predicted that once the new prison was up and running the ACT jail rate would drift upwards towards the national average. The latest evidence suggests that, in its first two years of operation, the numbers have only increased modestly.

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To be sure, with about 240 prisoners and remandees, the ACT's jail is near capacity. Even though it was built to accommodate 300 inmates, to keep various groups separate (males from females, convicted from remanded, etc.) a reasonable level of unused capacity is always required. It's been suggested that the unused capacity for this type of multi-purpose institution should be between 15 and 20 per cent.

Apart from the ACT's remarkably low imprisonment rate, one other measure that may be calculated from the latest ABS data shows that the ACT is clearly doing a better job than any other Australian jurisdiction. This is the ratio of convicted offenders serving community-based correctional orders (probation, parole, work orders, etc.) to the number of people in custody. For Australia as a whole, in the September 2011 quarter there was a daily average of 29,041 people in custody and 55,545 people serving community orders.

These national totals mean that for every person behind bars there were about 1.9 people who had been convicted of criminal offences but were serving their sentences in the community. The ratios vary between jurisdictions with South Australia and Tasmania having higher than average figures and, at the other extreme, both the Northern Territory and Western Australia having fewer people serving community orders than they have in jail.

The ACT has by far the highest ratio with more than 5.9 offenders serving community orders for every one in custody. All residents and taxpayers in the ACT should be really proud of this figure as community corrections orders are very considerably less expensive than custody, they have generally been found to be as effective in reducing recidivism.

With our very low imprisonment rate and with our much higher than average use of community-based correctional orders, I believe that the ACT correctional system could be a model for the rest of Australia. It certainly suggests that our judicial officers, both judges and magistrates, are genuinely committed to the principle that imprisonment should only be imposed as a last resort.

If that were the whole story, we could all feel a sense of pride with the work being done by our criminal justice system, but there is one fact which is an acute embarrassment and urgently needs to be addressed. This is the very high proportion of the people in our prison who are not convicted of any crime, but have been accused of committing offences and have been remanded in custody while awaiting trial.

For Australia as a whole, of those 29,000 people in custody last September, 23.4 per cent were remandees, while the proportion in the ACT was over 32 per cent, clearly higher than any other Australian jurisdiction. (It is even higher, at 36 per cent, if based on the three months of the September quarter.) This means that many people remanded in custody in the ACT may be held for many months, if not years, before facing a trial at which some of them may well be acquitted.

This unacceptable situation has been caused by delays in the ACT Supreme Court which has been brought about by the unconscionable decision of Attorney-General Simon Corbell to not appoint an extra judge to this court. We have all heard about the ambitious plan to overcome the backlog of cases by the appointment of temporary judges and the establishment of a more efficient system of monitoring the progress of cases.

It is to be hoped that this plan works and this embarrassing aspect of our judicial system is removed, but the only long-term solution is for there to be at least one more permanent judge on the ACT Supreme Court.

Just think about this: in the ACT we have four Supreme Court judges while in the Northern Territory there are currently six Supreme Court judges serving a population about two thirds of the population of the ACT. I know, the Northern Territory does have particular problems, but I also know that the proportion of NT prisoners who are remandees is lower than the national average. That comparison makes the ACT look like a cheapskate.

If we could reduce the proportion of remandees in the ACT to the national average, that would bring the numbers down by about thirty, and if we accept the Productivity Commission estimate that it costs around $100,000 per year to keep a person in custody that would save us $3 million, and that is many times more than the cost of an extra judge.

  • David Biles is a Canberra-based consultant criminologist.
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