Prison Bottleneck: Unsentenced Prisoners

Overcrowding creates unsafe prison environments

Photo: Wolter Peeters

I’m going to roll out some statistics and make some correlations – stop me if you’ve heard them before.

Nationally, the number of prisoners is on the rise. It has been climbing for years, but recent statistics from the ABS show an increase of 2,462 prisoners from December 2014 to December 2015. There are now 37,109 prisoners Australia-wide.

These statistics are already unencouraging, but then you look at them up close. The detail is dismal: unsentenced prisoners (those on remand awaiting a trial) account for 78% of the increase in prisoner population. In an ideal world, next to no prisoners would be locked in custody without actually having been found guilty of an offence. Prison itself is a punishment, and should only be imposed without guilt when community safety demands it. Clearly, though, it is not out of consideration of justice that 1,928 new unsentenced prisoners have been placed in custody.

The overall increase in prisoners could be due to a number of factors: an absolute increase in crime, better detection methods, longer sentences, overpolicing, overcriminalisation. The increase in unsentenced prisoners, on the other hand, points towards one inescapable fact: that our courts are simply not able to get through cases fast enough. The increase in unsentenced prisoners is due to the under-capacity of courts, which boils down to the perennial issue of underfunding. You’ve heard this before? Stop? Not yet – there’s one more thing to mention.

Last fortnight the NSW Minister for Corrections, David Elliot, announced a plan to cope with the state’s chronic overcrowding problem. The plan (basically a tender process between the private and public sector to see who can run the state’s prisons most efficiently) is fine, but that’s not the point. The point is that NSW has an overcrowding problem in the first place; an overcrowding problem that just so happens to coincide with the highest level of unsentenced prisoners in a decade.

Now, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. But as the prison crisis becomes increasingly acute, determining causation becomes secondary to finding the best solution. One certain way to address prison overcrowding would be to reduce the number of unsentenced prisoners. Simple. Mr. Elliot, however, has implemented a plan designed to increase the number of prison beds (an additional 1,124 by 2017). It’s a plan that is responding to the symptoms of the problem (the overcrowding), rather than trying to get at its causes. Smart justice has once again been sidelined. Familiar?