LETTER: Taking no prisoners

Sir – Special police operations have been welcomed in Alice Springs this month, to prevent a repeat of the ‘crime waves’ of last summer. As a result, numerous people have been arrested and brought before the courts. So many in fact, that there’s not enough space for everyone at the prison.
It’s alarming to think that the Alice Springs Prison is so far beyond capacity that it’s refusing to take prisoners.
Since late last week, at least five Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS) clients remanded by the Alice Springs courts to remain in custody for a short period have spent four or five nights in the Alice Springs Police watch house instead of being transferred to serve their remand at the prison.
The prison has been unable to accept them given that they are already managing an inflated number of prisoners.
While the importance of executing warrants is clear, many of the people recently arrested on warrants are facing minor charges which will not attract sentences of imprisonment.
In these types of cases, resources would be better used issuing warnings and transporting people to the court to surrender and have warrants recalled rather than arresting them and having to accommodate them in the crowded watch house for extended periods.
While the Alice Springs watch house is gazetted as a police prison and therefore can be used to hold people for some days, its facilities differ significantly from those at the prison.
For example, cells at the prison are usually single or double occupancy and contain toilet and shower facilities whereas most cells in the watch house are multiple occupancy and cells do not have shower facilities.
In addition to the Alice Springs Correctional Centre being above capacity, the Alice Springs Juvenile Detention Centre, which opened in March this year, would also be beyond capacity were it not for a few Central Australian young people having been transferred to Darwin.
In its ‘Prisoners in Australia’ report released on December 8, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that the NT had the highest proportionate increase in prison numbers between 2010 and 2011.
This is on top of the Northern Territory (NT) recording the largest percentage increase in the imprisonment rate between 2001 and 2011 and a 150% increase in female imprisonment rates in the same period.
The NT continues to have the highest imprisonment rate of any Australian jurisdiction.
It is evident that sending people to prison is not improving community safety. Recidivism rates remain high demonstrating that jailing people does not reduce the likelihood of their reoffending.
The NT Government must examine the evidence and recognise that the ‘tough on crime’ approach is ineffectual. More restorative, therapeutic and rehabilitative options need to be made available to stop offending and create safer communities.
By temporarily taking people off the streets, special police operations contribute to overcrowding at prisons and rising prison expenditure.
However experience suggests they don’t reduce crime or meaningfully improve community safety.
Mark O’Reilly
Principal Legal Officer
Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service

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9 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Andrew McAllan
    Posted March 30, 2012 at 9:23 am

    The overriding issue here is not the rights of those arrested; it is the right of citizens not to be subject to the criminal activities (whether minor or major) of recidivist offenders. As a society we keep protecting the rights of offenders. We defend their right to rehabilitation. It’s about time someone championed the rights of families. It’s about time the rights of the general population were held above those of common criminals. Our rehab services are far too ineffectual to deserve the support and weight of opinion they currently enjoy. Einstein said once “To do the same thing this year as last and expect a different result is a form of insanity”. Perhaps there is a level of insanity among our senior bureaucrats. Our Correctional Services personnel (both adult and juvenile) perform their duties proficiently and professionally. I can’t say the same for our politicians.

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  2. Terry
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 7:55 am

    I am long gone from The Alice, but my experience in the Prison Service at Alice in the 1970s (at the old jail in town) gives me some insight into the problems you are facing in the area. The population in the prison was roughly 25% white and 75% Aboriginal, of which probably 90% to 95% of the total population were alcohol related crimes. That said, and in answer to those that post here saying jail in not the answer, I would say this. Back then, and my guess would be still, the prison service saved the lives of many of those that were jailed, many of whom came to the prison undernourished, and in extremely poor health.
    Alice is home to many, and regardless of those that are against jail, it is the job of the administration to protect the whole community, and removing those that are dangerous to society as a whole is a necessity, and not a matter of human rights.

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  3. Janet Brown
    Posted December 31, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Let’s stop for a moment and start at the beginning. We are all residents of the Alice Springs area. Behaviour is based on the acceptability of social interaction. To excuse those who are raised in a community in the bush and make excuses for their bad behaviour is wrong. Social inclusion is about respect for self and others. When in any town or community it is about respect. Respect is a personal thing and is the greatest gift to bring to any society. We all want to find balance in our diet, our spending our life styles. But we actively support imbalance in our social interaction. Balance is achieved by 100% equality. No special consideration for anyone based on colour disability or race. Acceptance of that, that makes them different is acceptable. That is recognition of their difference and not making excuses for those differences signifies equality based on acceptance. I do not support the penal mentality we have and with that I support strongly that if you break into a person’s home you met those people and if you made a mess you clean it up. You participate in work based programs and a percentage of that money goes to repay for damage and missing items. You participate in your society and you actively participate in the righting of your wrong. We are part of a give and take society and yet those who steal and are not required to address what they have done they are excused for many reasons and none have anything to do with social interaction.

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  4. Hal Duell
    Posted December 29, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Crime in Alice Springs is associated with alcohol, almost every time, whether in acts of public disorder or major crimes like murder and arson. And yet whenever alcohol restrictions are mentioned, the ensuing debate would spin a wind turbine.
    You are right, I do support restrictions. Nationally I would like to see a volumetric tax, and locally I would like to see three take-away free days. My nominations would be Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
    I’m not holding my breath for either development.
    The lack of adequate funding for alternatives to prison extend across Australia. An article by Graeme Innes in today’s Fairfax papers points out that in 2007-2008, Australia spent over $2 billion on prisons. That statistic in now four years old,
    but I have no doubt current figures will have kept up. The total equated then to $269 per prisoner per day. My guess is it would cost more today.
    This is a lack of government imagination, a misuse of public money, a spinning of bureaucratic wheels. We’re wasting a chance.
    I also think that anyone living in Alice Springs has a part to play. It doesn’t matter if you are a local Aranda, a Melbourne shusher, from the Pit homelands, an African refugee, a Warlpiri or a tradie on a tear. Alice Springs is an urban center. We all need to pull our socks up.

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  5. Bob Durnan
    Posted December 29, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Hal
    The relevant flaws in the justice system are the lack of provision for community service as a practically available sentencing option, and the lack of home detention, particularly in remote communities. My understanding is that previous efforts to develop these options foundered on the problem of supervision. There were usually no sufficiently reliable methods of supervising the convicts in most remote communities. To create this capacity was judged to be too expensive. There may have been other factors involved. I think in some communities high levels of non-compliance may have led to political opposition to use of such options.
    In response to your question: at present there doesn’t appear to be any easily identifiable solutions available or being applied to the problem of “how … our urban society is supposed to deal with these law breakers”. This is partly why many of us, probably like you, think it is so urgent that measures such as a floor price on alcohol, and days without take-away alcohol sales, should be introduced, to help provide a buffer to these problems. In the long term, the new early childhood and family intervention programs should help ease the rate of offending. Some Aboriginal family leaders support more radical measures, such as the introduction of an NT licence to drink alcohol, and extension of compulsory Income Management to cover more than half of welfare benefits.
    Personally, I would support these reforms, provided they were to be applied to everybody, and I have called for more pressure on the recipients of unemployment benefits to have to accept available work, even if this requires them to move from home, provided they are psychologically able to cope with leaving home and have access to some affordable accommodation in the vicinity of the jobs.
    However I also believe that – at the same time – governments have no choice other than to support more job creation and accommodation programs, to enable some of the less adaptable unemployed, and people who are unable to leave because they are caring for others, to do socially useful work in remote communities.
    I believe this because there is simply nowhere near the amount of accommodation or conditions suitable for them and their dependents in the towns and cities where most of the existing services and work opportunities are available.
    Any such new job creation programs would need to be better planned, funded and monitored than the old CDEP projects, which were usually hamstrung by important factors such as insufficient funds, and lack of suitable accommodation and other infrastructure needed to attract and retain high quality staff in sufficient numbers to guarantee strong planning, administration, supervision of workers, and training. There would have to be stringent requirements that wages only be provided for work performed properly. Participants’ wages also need to be at award rates, and as far as possible the work provided should be commensurate with their skills. Full-time work should be available for those who want it.
    If I am correct in these assumptions, then we have a very big job on our hands in trying to persuade governments about these needs, and also to persuade great numbers of the taxpaying voters to overcome some of their prejudices and cynicism, and get behind such a program!

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  6. Hal Duell
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Bob: It seems we all agree that minor crimes do not deserve prison sentences. I still wonder about recidivists, and especially chronic recidivists, but we can leave that for another day.
    And thank you for your observations about education levels. It’s about what I imagined them to be. This reinforces my view that more education is needed. Hopefully the new Federal initiatives will help bring that about. Hopefully.
    But here’s a question: If there is no home in Alice Springs, and the arrested person is in town because they are estranged from their own communities, then how is the our urban society supposed to deal with these law breakers? If prison is too draconian, and home or community detention not possible, and programs are all too often still in the planning or waiting funding, what happens today and tomorrow?

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  7. Bob Durnan
    Posted December 23, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Hal: Mark clearly stated that “While the importance of executing warrants is clear, many of the people recently arrested on warrants are facing minor charges which will not attract sentences of imprisonment.” For the most part, these will probably be in relation to traffic, fighting and other public order offences, and failure to comply with bail conditions or DVOs. Most will be repeat offenders, or “recidivists”.
    Most will have been raised in bush communities for at least some of their childhoods, but now living in Alice Springs, here for varying periods and a range of reasons. The reasons will be dominated by boredom with, and alienation from other people in, their home communities, and the attractions of easy access to alcohol and cannabis in Alice.
    They are likely to have attended school, but only a little, so that their average literacy and numeracy levels will be, at best, around mid-primary school average attainment. They will mostly call “home” other people’s living room floors, verandahs, yards or a tin shed.

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  8. Hal Duell
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I know it’s more information than we usually get, but it might tell part of the story if we knew:
    1 What is the crime?
    2 Is he/she a recidivist?
    3 Did (does) he/she go to school?
    4 Where is he/she from?
    5 Does he/she live in a house?
    One year ago most of us in Alice were horrified to see what was happening on our streets, that is if we were out and about late at night or early in the AM. At that time I had an early morning job and going by KFC and over the Stott Tce bridge was scary enough in a motorcar. It was truly scary on a bicycle.
    Now a police blitz is arresting crims (they are not being arrested for doing nothing), and our lockups are running out of room. This is not surprising, and while being locked up in crowded conditions is no fun, just maybe there’s a lesson there: Prison is not fun – think about it.
    About my five questions:
    1 After an initial wake-up jolt, minor crimes don’t deserve extended prison time.
    2 Recidivists probably deserve to do some time.
    3 I ask about schooling because I would like to know.
    4/5 I ask about where from and houses to suggest the alternative to prison of home or community detention.

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  9. Maya Cifali
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 9:39 am

    These are very accurate comments, Mark. Thank you for raising the point at this time in the year – or in fact at any time – possibly even more so in the months leading to NT elections.
    To remove offenders from the streets, put them out of sight and throw away the key, has never been a solution to over-offending.
    The situation being what it is in the NT, wouldn’t it be the task of the Magistrates to alter their sentencing from imprisonment to something else whatever this may be among the services offered by the community? Once arrested with a warrant and brought before a court by the police, is it mandatory goal sentence in all these many cases? Surely not!

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