Friday, June 18, 2010

Throwing Away The Key

A senior judge has called for a review of bail and sentencing laws because he believes that too many people are locked up in jail and too much money is spent on keeping them there. Justice Reg Blanch is the Chief Judge of the District Court, and was previously the Director of Public Prosecutions, so he has a wealth of experience and knowledge backing up his opinions. In a speech to Legal Aid lawyers at a conference he claimed that having record numbers of prisoners in jail didn’t necessarily make the state a safer place. He claimed that New South Wales has lost the balance between the need to protect the community and the cost of providing that protection.

More than 10 000 people are currently held in New South Wales prisons, and while it would be easy to dismiss that as an indication that law enforcement agencies are succeeding in the fight against crime, about one quarter of those prisoners have not yet been convicted of a crime. That’s an awful lot of people locked up waiting for justice, and in part is due to the introduction of presumption against bail provisions intended to reduce the risk of violent suspects reoffending while on bail. Justice Blanch maintains that while offences are sometimes committed on bail, “it cannot be said to be a common occurrence”.

Also bulking up the prison population numbers are standard non parole periods, mandatory disqualification for some driving offences, the definition of some sexual assaults, and a tendency to wards longer sentences across the board. Justice Blanch believes that all of these factors should be subject to a “calm review” to determine if the aim of protecting society can be achieved at a lesser cost. Of course, the financial cost is substantial, but the human cost is also enormous. Justice Blanch points out that longer sentences have resulted in former prisoners having “extreme difficulty” reintegrating into society, and that the cancellation of driver’s licences had led to the jailing of drivers who could not be considered dangerous.

Justice Blanch made a comparison with the State of Victoria, where prison budget is half that of New South Wales, and suggested that “there is no greater level of safety in New South Wales and that the level of crime is no less as a result of the increase in sentences”. In other words, locking up more people and throwing away the key, doesn’t necessarily mean that the community is a safer or a better place. While it is essential that the community is protected by an effective justice system, it is important to remember that the measure of success is not how many prisoners are locked up, but whether fewer crimes are committed.

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