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Goff: Imprisonment - only part of the answer

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Corrections

Speech Notes

EMBARGOED TO 5.45pm 26 August 2008

Imprisonment - only part of the answer

Speech for the launch of book: "The Prison System and its Effects, Wherefrom, Whereto, and Why?" Grand Hall, Parliament Buildings

Welcome and thank you for joining me in the Grand Hall this evening. It is a pleasure to be here to launch Professor Tony Taylor's book The Prison System and its Effects.

Shortly I'll ask Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh to say a few words and Professor Taylor to introduce and speak about it. Following that, the book will be officially launched.

The Prison System and its Effects provides a history of incarceration and highlights the constantly recurring tension between proponents of retributive and reformative philosophies. As Minister of Corrections, and prior to that, as Minister of Justice, this is a debate that I am very familiar with.

I have been told by many people that the solution to crime is to make prison conditions harsher to act as an effective deterrent.

There is no evidence at all that harsh imprisonment reduces offending. But the concept does have simplistic appeal.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, has won fame for shackling prisoners, making them wear pink underwear and accommodating them in tents. A study commissioned by Joe Arpaio himself and carried out by Arizona State University however has found that the policies have been totally ineffective in reducing re-offending rates.

The prison population of the Sheriff's Maricopa County has grown each year of his tenure and now stands at over 10,000. Incredibly, the crime rate there now tops that of both New York and Los Angeles.

This mirrors research conducted by the Department of Corrections, which showed that while imprisonment is a punishment, it is not a deterrent to offenders. Most offenders do not think about the consequences of their actions. Imprisonment protects the community from actions by the offender while incarcerated. By itself, it does not however change behaviour and thus does not protect the community against future reoffending.

The key role of imprisonment is to protect the public by keeping offenders who present a risk to the community out of circulation and to punish those who have offended against their community. It also needs to address the reasons inmates offended in the first place.

The best of our rehabilitation programmes in prison such as the Kia Marama sex offenders programme and new drug and alcohol addiction programmes have been effective in reducing reoffending.

The enactment of the Sentencing and the Parole Acts 2002, imposed much longer sentences on the worst offenders and required the safety of the public to be the paramount consideration in parole decisions. The new Bail Act in 2000 also took a tougher line, reversing the onus of proof so that hard core recidivist offenders had to prove to the Court why they should get bail.

The result of these changes, and a huge increase in police numbers, unsurprisingly, has been an increase in prisoner numbers. In ten years, prisoner numbers have climbed from 4,500 to 7,700 - a 71 percent increase.

To accommodate this increasing population, the Government has invested close to one billion dollars constructing four new prisons and increasing capacity on existing sites. In total we have added 2,345 beds to the prison system since 2004, the largest increase in prison capacity in this country's history.

Given these facts, it's hard to sustain the views of Sensible Sentencing and other groups that this country is soft on law and order. Our imprisonment rates are significantly higher than comparable European countries or Australia.

But if the real goal is a safer community, less crime and few victims, we need to look beyond higher and higher levels of imprisonment to achieve that.

Putting more resources into early intervention, addressing criminogenic factors at the start of a child's life such as dysfunctional and abusive families is probably the best long term response to reducing crime.

And there is more we can do even after a person offends, including keeping lower risk, less serious offenders out of prison to avoid the negative influence of a criminal peer group and the extension of successful restorative justice programmes.

In 2006, the Government launched the Effective Interventions package. Effective Interventions is a range of initiatives designed to reduce offending and find more effective sanctions for less serious offenders.

This includes more community-based sentence options for judges supported by electronic monitoring, to use instead of prison sentences. Additional investment was provided to open two new Drug Treatment Units and two new Special Treatment Units aimed at providing intensive treatment to prisoners with addictions or violent convictions. There has also been a strong effort to increase the number of prisoners provided with work skills and experience and work habits.

Community-based alcohol and drug treatment services for offenders serving non-prison sentences have also been expanded. These sorts of programmes have helped reduce reoffending.

Professor Taylor outlines in The Prison System and its Effects a range of further options to explore but acknowledges there are no simple or easy answers. His book however is a significant contribution to the debate and I welcome the opportunity to help in its launch tonight.

I would now like to invite Professor Pat Walsh to say a few words.

Thank you Professor Walsh and Professor Taylor for your insights.

The Prison System and its Effects provides important analysis on imprisonment - its purpose and its effectiveness.

I hope that it will inform and advance the public debate in an informed manner and congratulate Professor Taylor for the work he has put into it.

It gives me great pleasure to officially launch The Prison System and its Effects: Wherefrom, Whereto, and Why.


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