Western Australia is reaching an incarceration tipping point and should look to the United States for a blueprint on prison reform, according to a report by conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.
- WA has the highest imprisonment rate for both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians
- A conservative think tank believes the number of prisoners in WA is reaching tipping point
- The Government says it “inherited” the problem and is moving to fix it
The IPA report said WA’s prison population had grown by more than 50 per cent over the past decade, with $596 million spent on prison operations last financial year — up about 45 per cent from 2009.
It said WA was heading in the direction of the US, which is home to the world’s biggest prison population, and should follow the US lead in trying to address the issue.
It cited policy reform such as the First Step Act which was passed into law by President Donald Trump last year, and said the WA Government should be considering something similar.
The policy included shortening some mandatory minimum sentences and expanding prisoner employment and training programs.
It also expanded avenues for eligible elderly and terminally ill prisoners to get their sentences reduced, and allowed the release of some low-risk elderly inmates to be transferred to home confinement.
WA at critical juncture: report
The IPA’s report, titled Why Western Australia Needs Criminal Justice Reform, pointed out that WA has the highest imprisonment rate for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
The report’s author Andrew Bushnell said the rapid increase in incarceration suggested a tipping point.
“We know that around the early 1980s the United States had a similar incarceration rate to Western Australia [now], and it quadrupled over the next generation or so,” he said.
“Western Australia is developing a pattern of incarceration that is similar to the United States.
Wandoo prisoners can take part in programs to prepare them for their release. (ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)
“What we would like to see is a move towards using incarceration to take the most violent, dangerous offenders off the street, but punishment reform implemented for non-violent offenders.”
Mr Bushnell criticised the WA Government’s recent commitment of $186 million to expand Casuarina Prison, saying increased spending on prisons sucked resources out of other parts of the criminal justice system like community corrections.
The report advocated for a broader approach to reducing incarceration for nonviolent offenders, including by expanding work and education programs.
Mr Bushnell said the United States experience showed such reform was possible and for Western Australia, it was increasingly vital.
“What we have seen in the United States is that it has actually been conservative states, Texas and Georgia, and the Federal Administration lead by Donald Trump, that have been able to get criminal justice reform done,” he said.
The report said money had been reallocated away from prison construction and into probation and parole services for nonviolent offenders in the state of Texas
“In the decade following the adoption of this strategy, Texas avoided paying $3 billion in new prison spending and saw violent, sex, and serious property crimes decline by more than 12 per cent,” Mr Bushnell said.
Prison expansion defended
But Corrective Services Minister Fran Logan said he would not be looking for guidance on prison reform from the United States, and rejected the notion WA’s incarceration rate was heading in that direction.
“[WA prison] numbers have actually flatlined over the last two years,” he said.
“I don’t think we should really be taking too much advice from the United States which has the greatest number of prisoners in the world.
“It is not surprising that Trump is trying to do something to bring down the cost of incarcerating people in the United States.
“We are focussing on Western Australia, the problem that we inherited, and we are addressing it by reforming the prison system.”
Mr Logan said this reform included better drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs within the prison system — pointing to the state’s first rehabilitation prison Wandoo.
He also highlighted the State Government’s plans to prevent fine defaulters from going to prison, and the Government’s Target 120 program which sees dedicated case workers assigned to at-risk youth.
Mr Logan defended Government spending money on expanding prisons, saying he inherited an overstretched prison system from the previous government.
“The prison expansion had to take place,” he said.
“We have kept it as cheap as possible by using the land we already own to build upon.”
Prisoner work rate poor
In Western Australia, 39 per cent of offenders return to prison within two years of release.
Mr Bushnell said the correlation between unemployment and re-offending was well-known, but WA’s prisoner work participation rate was below the national average.
Participation in commercial industries was 16 per cent, compared to 49 per cent in New South Wales.
“If there is one thing that we know about rehabilitating offenders and getting them back on the straight and narrow, it’s that employment is key to that,” he said.
Noongar man Korey Penny can attest to that.
When he was released from prison, where he had spent time for drug offences, he was knocked back for more than 20 jobs because of his criminal record.
He had almost lost hope and was considering turning back to drugs and jail when he found Ngalla Maya employment services three years ago.
Korey Penny loves his job and says there is no way he is returning to prison. (ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)
The Perth-based organisation, which helps Indigenous people find employment and training after being released from prison, guided Mr Penny to a construction job on the State Government’s $1.86 billion Forrestfield-Airport Link project.
‘I have a job, a future, a house’
Mr Penny quickly worked his way up the ladder within the contracted company, Salini Impregilo, and now works in a supervising role on the $20 million tunnel boring machines.
Now married with two children, a salary of close to $150,000 and his own home, Mr Penny said there was no way he would ever return to prison.
“It was like a cycle. You get out, you look for a job, you go back in,” he said.
“Ngalla Maya helped me break that cycle. I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore.
“I have a job, a future, a house, kids, a wife. I don’t even think about going back inside.
“For that company to give me a go, a person of my background, and now I’m running machinery like that, it’s pretty huge.
“Every day I go to work proud.”
Mervyn Eades started Ngalla Maya in 2014 after spending many years in and out of prison himself.
It organises job-training placements that prepare people for a range of industries, and mentors them the whole way through.
Mervyn Eades says it cost less to train a person for a job than to keep them in jail. (ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)
Mr Eades said the organisation, which receives Federal Government funding, had helped more than 300 people find employment since it started.
He said of those, just two per cent had reoffended after gaining employment.
Mr Eades said while the cost of keeping a person in prison for a year was more than $100,000, that same amount of money could get a person trained and employed through the Ngalla Maya program.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the spend is less on helping them get jobs and diverted away from the prison system,” he said.
“The investment has got to be into training and employment to give people opportunities once they come out of prison. They keep spending money on building more and more prisons [but] the prison system is broken.”
Prisoner employment a focus
Mr Logan conceded WA had room for improvement when it came to prisoner employment.
“I have seen the prison industries system in New South Wales and it is very good and it dwarfs what we are doing here in Western Australia,” he said.
“We are overhauling the prison industries programs in WA. We want to expand them.
“As part of our entire prison system reform program, we are focussing on prison industries and education.”