It is essentially a failure of administration.The nation’s foremost collector of information on this, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics (BOCSAR) recently reported that nearly a third of the NSW prison population is on remand, i.e., awaiting trial.
At the rate of $170,000 p.a. per prisoner, that is a lot of money. Of the remainder, the majority (i.e., well over 1000) will not receive a custodial sentence. So, apart from the manifest injustice to the person, the cost of doing something that is pointless amounts to many millions of dollars. You’d think the bean-counters at the State Treasury would prick up their ears. But no. In addition, if that number were not so detained, two or three gaols could be closed, saving a couple of hundred million dollars for each one, arithmetically approaching a billion dollars.
So why is it happening? Notwithstanding the Sentencing Act, which requires judicial officers to consider incarceration as a last resort, magistrates, and to a lesser extent judges, regularly refuse bail in cases where a gaol sentence is unlikely, often merely because the alleged offender has “failed to appear”, when that is often explicable, by homelessness, illiteracy, mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, or just incompetence in dealing with paperwork or remembering dates. With suitable leadership from the heads of the Courts, and the Attorney-General, much of this could be eliminated. In addition, either the issuing of warrants for non-appearance should be limited to serious cases, or a provision put into place where instead of arresting the offender the police could issue a further court attendance notice, preferably for an early date. The introduction of Bail Hostels, as they have in the U.K., would also reduce failing to appear.
Over the last decade BOCSAR and others have estimated the number of prisoners who have a diagnosed or diagnosable and treatable mental illness. BOCSAR has (most likely conservatively) come to a figure of 25% which in NSW would be over 3,000. Justice Health has provision for 150 beds, which are usually half in use. This means that around 3000 prisoners, many of whose “offences” may have have a mental illness cause, are detained, untreated, in an environment highly unlikely to be therapeutic, but more likely to exacerbate the mental condition . Bur even if you put that to one side, it still costs $170,000 a year to keep them in gaol. As the Schizophrenia Fellowship has shown, residential secure treatment facilities can operate at less than half that cost. Removing 3000 inmates could lead to the closing of more than three gaols, at a saving approaching a billion dollars.
While the legislation has provision for the conditional discharge of “offenders” on psychiatric grounds, its application is optional and some judicvial officers simply refuse to allow it. Again leadership from the superior courts and the heads of jurisdictions would make a difference. To make evidence based reforms is rational, but requires political will and, dare one say guts.
Jim Coombs is a nearly retired magistrate and economist