Community safety is the highest priority of the criminal justice system and the NSW government can be proud of the latest batch of crime statistics.
Robbery and theft have declined 13 per cent from the last quarter of 2016.Other serious crimes such as murder and assault are stable. This stands in stark contrast to Victoria where serious crime is skyrocketing, up 20 percent over the past two years.
When it comes to reducing crime in Australia, NSW is leading the way. Building on this success, the government now has the opportunity to launch a wide-ranging criminal justice reform program.
The government is already addressing some known problems in the system. Fifty-two per cent of prisoners are repeat offenders, and the government is responding by spending $237 million on programs to reduce recidivism. To deter crime, the state has also committed $57 million for new and upgraded police stations.
The last state Budget committed a record $8.1 billion to criminal justice. And over the next four years, the government will add 7000 new prison beds at a cost of $3.8 billion; more expensive than WestConnex.
But the public is entitled to ask: is all of this money being effectively targeted towards community safety?
Is increasing incarceration the best way to keep the streets safe?
To answer these questions, new research by the Institute of Public Affairs suggests that NSW can learn from the experience of the US.
Over the past decade, more than 20 American states have taken steps to safely reduce the growth of incarceration. Texas, for example, has avoided $US3.9 billion in prison spending while seeing massive declines in serious violent, property and sex crimes.
The process begins with punishment reform for non-violent offenders. In the words of former Texas politician Jerry Madden, we need to separate those criminals we are “afraid of” from those we are merely “mad at”.
While violent criminals need to be locked up, many other offenders can be safely punished in the community, with measures such as home detention, community service, fines and restitution orders.
In NSW, the most serious offence of 48 per cent of prisoners was a non-violent offence. Among these offenders are petty thieves, minor drug offenders, and traffic offenders. Given the average annual cost of locking someone up is almost $90,000, implementing punishment reform for even some of these people would help to offset the cost of the programs that the government has proposed.
In practice, punishment reform means that much of the money saved by slowing the growth of incarceration still needs to be spent on criminal justice, to pay for case officers, monitoring, and halfway houses.
There is also clear evidence that increased policing is more effective in deterring crime than measures such as making prison sentences longer.
Over time, savings are produced by reducing crime and, in particular,reoffending. Importantly, the money saved should stay in the criminal justice system. The government should ignore calls from social engineers to use these redirected funds in any way that treats the criminals as victims and wants to blame society for their crimes. Criminals are accountable for their actions. No excuses should be made for them.
Instead, the government should set the expectation that offenders will become productive citizens.
That is in line with both commonsense and the American experience. Studies have shown the best way to keep people on the straight and narrow is employment. For this reason, American states have expanded skills education, reduced barriers to employment such as licensing requirements, and offered tax incentives to businesses that hire released prisoners.
To the government’s credit, NSW is already moving in this direction, with increased TAFE study opportunities for inmates and work programs in prisons. Training should always focus on marketable skills, and not feel-good programs in the arts and music.
For the government, there is also an interesting political observation from the US. Successful criminal justice reform has been led by conservatives. Contrary to the view of left-wing commentators, traditional principles of personal responsibility and fair punishment are the bedrock of the criminal justice system.
And only conservatives can be trusted to cut costs rather than throw taxpayer money towards favoured causes.
As the experience of US states such as Texas demonstrates, staying true to our values while addressing the problems and cost pressures within the criminal justice system has been a political victory for conservatives. It can be a win for the Berejiklian government as well.