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City Desk
12 July, 2010  
Raw prawns and tabloid beat-ups

Effectiveness of incarceration … The Crime and Justice Reform Committee has been setting out the facts on rates of imprisonment … An interesting study in contrasts … Fairfax and Murdoch reptiles absorb different messages over Danny Gilbert’s delicious treats


The Crime and Justice Reform Committee has held two media lunches in the ultra cool Gilbert + Tobin boardroom.

The idea was to get the media to better understand the dire consequences of NSW’s screwy regime of over-imprisonment.

The Fairfax people were first to listen to the CJRC’s message as they quietly munched on delectable morsels, including the firm’s famous prawn sandwiches.

It was a polite affair as this was a case of lecturing to the converted about the expensive and largely ineffective imprisonment policies favoured by NSW’s pollies.

Some of the stories that flowed from the scrumptious briefing can be seen here and here.

imageA separate lunch a few months later was held for News Ltd reptiles, who received a far less impressive food allocation. The prawn sambos were to be seen nowhere.

The questioning was edgy. Piers Akerman (pic) growled that high rates of imprisonment seemed to be having the desired effect, particularly in the US of A where crime has been falling (over the last 30 years).

He seemed pretty offended by the thought that zero tolerance wasn’t a great idea, but he was also distracted by the food.

After a few beef rolls his line of questioning mellowed.

Oddly enough Matt Peacock, from Your ABC, volunteered a tabloid kind of proposition:

“Maybe the stocks would be more of a deterrent than prison.”

There seemed to be general acceptance that this policy would provide better stories for the media and do a decent amount of injury to the self-esteem of offenders.

The CJRC’s message is a powerful one.

imageThe committee’s convenor is retired Supreme Court judge Hal Sperling, and he’s joined by former appeal judge Paul Stein, retired Dizzo beak Chris Geraghty, plus piles of academics and a sprinkling of the right sort of barrister.

Danny Gilbert (pic) has lent his support and resources.

Standard non-parole periods, resulting in longer terms of imprisonment, and reversing the onus for bail are among the reasons NSW prisons are bursting at the seams with 500 new prisoners a year being added to the gulag.

This requires the construction of a new medium sized jail every 12 months.

NSW is spending more than $1 billion a year on prisons and its 10,000-plus full-time prisoners. It has an imprisonment rate of 184.8 adults per 100,000 of population, only behind the NT and WA with their high rates of Aboriginal incarceration.

In 10 years NSW has seen a 50 percent increase in full-time prisoners.

The reward is a small reduction overall in the crime rate. Don Weatherburn, the guru who crunches the figures at the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, says that typically a 10 percent increase in the rate of imprisonment produces a three percent reduction in the serious crime.

It’s an incredibly expensive way to reduce crime and the recidivism is horrendous – 60 percent of those who have done time, will do time again.

The CJRC points to Victoria, which has almost half NSW’s rate of imprisonment per 100,000 adults (103.6) and spends less than half NSW’s amount on prisons ($466.8 million). It also manages to have a crime rate in all the major categories that is about the same as NSW’s.

Victoria’s average daily number of prisoners is 4,350 (2009 figure) spread over 14 “custodial facilities”. NSW has a whopping 57 prisons.

imageThe reason that a lower rate of imprisonment with shorter sentences does not lead to increased crime south of the Murray is due to a greater commitment to “judicial reinvestment” – in diversionary programs, post-imprisonment support and criminal prevention.

The Australian’s Caroline Overington (pic) returned from the lunch and reported that there was a “significant flaw” in the CJRC’s presentation.

“The community wants people to go to prison for monstrous crimes. It wants killers put in jail for a long time, and rapists, too… The public wants all serious crimes punished with prison.”

Hal Sperling had to race to the rescue, with a rebuttal published the following week in the paper:

“I believe people would prefer improving community safety to exacting retribution, particularly as retribution is much more expensive than more effective ways of dealing with crime.”

Of course, the CJRC’s emphasis is on sentencing for the ordinary run of crime, not the minority of “monstrous crimes”.

Mike Steketee, who was at the lunch for the News Ltd people, and didn’t seem in the least bit hungry, produced this well-balanced article for the Oz.

As for The Daily Telegraph, it’s as though Hal Sperling’s little outfit threw down a challenge for it concoct the most lurid beat-ups.

Reporter Gemma Jones came up with a front a front page screamer in response to the NSW government’s plan to abolish weekend detention and replace it with mandatory rehabilitation:

Prisoners sentenced to TV and brekkie in bed.

A get-out-of-jail free card will be given to 750 violent and dishonest criminals under a state government plan to let them serve prison sentences in the comfort of their homes.

As criminals were celebrating yesterday, victims groups were outraged at Premier Kristina Keneally’s astounding solution to the rising crime rates and overcrowded jails.”

It’s quite an achievement to write a story where almost every “fact” was wrong.

This was followed-up by a Janet Fife-Yeoman’s special in the Tele: Killers set free.

Apparently 40 to 50 percent of all trials over a 10 year period ended in not guilty verdicts, which is not quite the same as “killers set free”.

The NSW bar’s criminal law spokesperson, Stephen Odgers, as though trying to explain to a small child, wrote to the paper saying:

“The number of acquittals at trial does not indicate that the system is not working. The vast majority of people charged with criminal offences plead guilty and some of those acquitted will have been found not guilty by reason of mental illness, but are detained for treatment.”

There have also been recent Tele stories claiming the cops are concerned about a lack of prison capacity while at the same time thousands of crimes are being hidden by the police.

While the paper trots out its populist guff, judges are more and more restless and frustrated.

Reg Blanch, CJ of the Dizzo, issued a clarion call in a recent speech to legal aid lawyers. Comparing the situations in NSW and Victoria, he said:

“I venture to suggest there is no greater level of safety in NSW and that the level of crime is no less as a result of the increase in sentences.

Do we need to spend a billion dollars on prisons and could we achieve the same ends at a lower cost?”

In Western Australia earlier this year Justice Christine Wheeler retired early, exasperated about sentencing:

“I can only say for myself that the disconnection to a degree between what I do, as I see my duty to do it, and what empirical evidence suggests it would be better to do is one reason – not the sole reason – but one reason that maybe it is time to give it away.”

Maybe it’s also time for the CJRC to roll out some of Danny’s top-of-the-range prawn sandwiches for the reptiles of the Smellograph.