This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 16 May 2017.
The NSW government continues to lead the way on innovative criminal justice policy. Having last year committed $3.8 billion to new and improved prisons, the government is now pivoting to reforms designed to reduce the need for further prison spending over the longer-term, by lowering reoffending and improving community safety.
The government last week announced a package of reforms, including the abolition of suspended sentences and a new procedure for managing offenders released on parole. While prison is absolutely necessary for violent criminals, these reforms acknowledge that for those criminals we do release into the community, we need more options for managing their behaviour.
These reforms correctly identify reducing reoffending as a top priority. Fifty-two per cent of NSW prisoners have been imprisoned before. Twenty-nine per cent of convicted adults commit another crime within two years of their conviction. More effectively correcting offenders’ behaviour will make a significant dent in the crime rate.
The parole changes are a clever way of addressing this problem. Under the current system, parole breaches are reviewed by the State Parole Authority, a time-consuming process. The reformed system will empower Community Corrections Officers to punish minor parole breaches quickly by imposing new conditions or taking away privileges. A series of breaches will lead to escalating punishments.
This change is informed by evidence from overseas. In the US, many states have adopted “swift, certain, and fair” punishments for parole and probation breaches. The idea is a response to the reluctance of some case officers to punish breaches if the only available punishment is imprisonment. Many case officers were looking the other way at minor breaches, like missed appointments, rather than sending offenders to prison. Without consequences, or with only the vague threat of revocation hanging over them, offenders had no incentive to change their behaviour.
The main benefit of this change is that it increases the certainty of punishment for parole breaches. By drawing a clear connection between the breach and the punishment, Community Corrections Officers will be able to better correct the behaviour of parolees.
This program has achieved significant results in Hawaii, especially with reducing drug use among program participants. Missed and positive tests fell 80 per cent in the first five years of the program. This in turn reduced participants’ likelihood of reoffending. Other states have copied the idea and have also seen some positive results. In Texas, for example, program participants were up to 50 per cent less likely to be convicted of new crimes.
However, the program cannot guarantee success. A 2016 study of four jurisdictions found mixed results, especially for higher-risk offenders. What this suggests is that habitual offenders and those convicted of serious crimes should not be on parole in the first place. The NSW government has acknowledged this in its reforms by making community safety the foremost consideration in the decision to grant parole and by making supervision mandatory for all parolees.
Overall, managed properly, this system can reduce reoffending for lower-risk parolees. The increased level of supervision required is paid for by reducing reoffending, slowing the growth of incarceration and by handling of parole breaches more efficiently.
These parole reforms are part of a broader rationalisation of the corrections system towards community safety. This agenda can also be seen in the decision to replace suspended sentences with the expanded use of community-based corrections. Currently, convicted criminals are either imprisoned or released into the community. This change will give judges more options for punishing nonviolent, low-risk criminals, who may now be subject to home detention, curfews, and movement restrictions. These punishments are associated with better results in terms of reoffending. Breaches of corrections orders will also be subject to swift and escalating punishments. Again, the focus is on managing the transition of offenders back into society by filling in the spectrum of available punishments.
Crucially, the government is not reinventing the wheel. Its actions are consistent with community expectations of personal responsibility and fair punishment. This is good policy and good politics. The state government is showing that it is possible to both be tough on violent criminals and to pursue targeted, safety-driven punishment reform for nonviolent offenders.