South Australia's new home detention laws should not be about coddling criminals

Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty | Andrew Bushnell
Adelaide Advertiser 28th October, 2016

Lindsay Bassani, a former Education Department bureaucrat and football coach, was sentenced to home detention after stealing almost $10,000 from the South Australian Aboriginal Sports Training Academy. Despite being allowed to avoid prison, he is now complaining about his electronic tracking bracelet because of the stigma of being seen with it.

The fact that Mr Bassani is complaining is a good thing. It means he feels like he is being punished, which is precisely the point of his sentence.

As reported in this newspaper, Bassani is one of the first beneficiaries of sentencing changes introduced by the Weatherill Government in May. These reforms gave judges more discretion in allowing certain nonviolent, low-risk offenders to serve their sentences in home detention, and they were introduced for very sound reasons.

The prison population in South Australia has grown by 75 percent in the last 10 years. There is evidence to suggest that not all of this growth was necessary or desirable.

For example, the most serious offence of almost half of these prisoners was a nonviolent offence. In many cases, locking them up is doing very little for community safety. And it is known that prisons often fail to prevent criminals from reoffending. Nationwide, 59 percent of prisoners have been imprisoned before.

South Australian taxpayers spend about $96,000 for each person in prison each year. With prisons already at capacity, if this trend were to continue, taxpayers would soon need to pay for a new prison.

Instead of continuing to spend more and more money on locking up people who pose little threat to the community and for whom incarceration is unlikely to be rehabilitative, South Australia has rightly decided to try something different.

Bassani committed a nonviolent, relatively minor property crime, and has a stable job and home. He is the sort of offender for whom laws like this are designed.

But even though this kind of reform has merit, policymakers and judges must not lose sight of the fundamental purpose of the criminal justice system: the punishment of individuals who harm others or the community.

It is vital to the operation of the criminal justice system that criminals feel they are being punished for their actions. And for victims, seeing a punishment imposed is essential to their sense of closure.

This means that offenders like Bassani should not be coddled. Restrictions like not being able to consume alcohol, a curfew, and being confined to certain locations, are not only entirely reasonable but necessary to give weight to his punishment. Incredibly, Bassani is suffering none of these hardships. It is positive that he is employed but being allowed to travel to his workplace should be the limit of his mobility. He shouldn't be playing footy, let alone worrying about how he looks on the field.

What this case illustrates is that the goal of punishment reform should not be to give criminals an easier time. Instead, the goal must be to impose punishment more effectively, to reduce crime and recidivism, and more efficiently, to reduce government waste.

There is a common view in criminology that crime is a result of social dysfunction. Rather than the traditional understanding of crime being a choice made by individuals, on this view crime is a pathology caused by social and economic disadvantage and so criminals are not really responsible for their actions.

In a perverse way, criminologists consider criminals to be victims. And so they support reforms such as these because they do not believe in punishment at all.

This nonsense should not be allowed to discredit or discourage good faith attempts to rationalise criminal punishment consistent with a traditional emphasis on retribution. The criminal justice system is not a tool with which to reengineer society or to redress social grievances. It is the means by which our communities are kept safe and peaceful, and it achieves this end by ensuring that criminals suffer negative consequences for their wrongful acts.

It is possible to get the benefits of punishment reform-lower crime and recidivism, with less spending on prisons-without, in effect, letting criminals like Bassani off lightly.

But this requires policymakers and judges to insist on the need for criminals to experience their sentences as punishments.