JIM COOMBS. Crime Down, Gaolings Up. Why ?

Jun 26, 2017

Sources of accurate information, such as the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) under their Director, Dr Don Weatherburn, have for some years reported that crimes of all types have been decreasing. This is due to better police technology and resources and security generally. So why do we hear that crime, especially violent crime, is something we should fear, and have government stamp out with “tough on crime” policies, which the courts duly do, in line with changes to the law. Why are we so misinformed, and who is to blame ? The three Ps, Police, Press and Politicians.

The police, by virtue of changing definitions of offences, changing policing strategies and procedures (e.g. stringently enforcing breach of bail conditions, even where trivial) can all contribute to enlarging the figures but not the actual incidence of offending of any consequence. It is, of course, in the interest of the police to claim a need for more resources from the State budget, and their loudest supporters are the shock jocks who simply ignore the research and claim a need for more and more policing.

The press and popular media seem to believe that extensive reporting of violent crime attracts the audience they seek, and, apparently unashamedly, claim that crime, especially violent crime, is increasing, when the research shows that the reverse is true, with a downward trend over the last few decades. Don Weatherburn, in an address easily accessible on Youtube, “Uses and Abuses of Crime Statistics” reports a number of examples where BOCSAR’s own reports have been misreported to show increases in crimes of various kinds, when the report explicitly finds the opposite. The radio shock jocks simply ignore the research and demand more “tough on crime” action by government.

With such loud and insistent demands being made, the politicians relent. They increase penalties, and fill up the gaols by making incarceration a more likely outcome. When Greg Smith, who had previously been a pretty tough Crown Prosecutor, was Attorney General of NSW, he recast the Bail Act on the old Common Law basis: a person charged (i.e., innocent until proven guilty) was entitled to bail release, unless there was an “unacceptable risk” of flight or serious offending. This was not good enough for the shock jocks and more punitive minded politicians, so a list of offences were added to the Bail Act where a “presumption against bail” would apply, resulting in a sizeable number of unconvicted persons being remanded in custody, often for a long period sometimes more than a year, some of whom were not convicted, and who might never have been convicted due, say to a weakness of the case against them. Then there are the number of people who are arrested and incarcerated for breach of bail. Many of these breaches are unlikely to lead to a gaol sentence, yet bail might then be refused, at the cost to the budget of over $300 a night. Many who fail to appear do so because they are disorganised, alcohol or drug affected, or just plain incompetent, but they go into custody. In Britain there are Bail Hostels where people on bail may be required to overnight and who ensure people don’t “fail to appear”: a sensible reform you might think.

One of the depressing features of State elections is the regular “law and order” bidding of tougher penalties, when if the statistics are right have little effect on the downward trend in crime, but fill up the gaols. The courts often fine traffic offenders or minor street crime offenders at a level which they often are unable to pay, which, in NSW leads to revocation of driver’s licence and vehicle registration, and, given the lack of adequate public transport in the outer suburbs of Sydney and regional NSW, they drive so that they can work. They then get convicted of driving unlicenced and unregistered and many are sent to gaol. There are some hundreds in NSW gaols whose offence is just that. Our politicians have given us that.

The culture in the Courts, especially the Local Courts, does not take seriously enough the injunction in Section 5 of the Sentencing Act to consider gaol as a “last resort”. Don Weatherburn has shown that in terms of outcome, a non-custodial sentence (e.g., a bond, community service, intensive corrections order) for the same offence has a similar outcome to a gaol penalty and at about one third the cost. That there are and have been magistrates who don’t take account of this is a sad fact.

While the three Ps are best placed to stop this, we the voters should know and act on the truth. The bean counters in the government should be aware of the cost of these policies, and avoid the increasing waste of resources involved.

Jim Coombs is a retired magistrate and economist


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