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Reducing the Risk of Recidivism

Reducing the Risk of Recidivism

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 15/2006 by Talina Drabsch
Determining the proper response to the reoffending behaviour of criminals has plagued governments, criminologists, the judiciary and the community for some time. A precise figure for the rate of recidivism cannot be ascertained, as much crime goes unreported and the courts do not convict all offenders for various reasons including lack of evidence. Rates of recidivism also depend on what measures are used in terms of the time frame considered and whether one is concerned about particular offences, rearrest rates or reimprisonment. Nonetheless, approximately 60% of those in custody in Australia have previously served a period of imprisonment. Recidivism is accordingly an important subject for study.

Section two (pp 3-14) notes the findings of a number of recent Australian studies of recidivism. A number of predictors of recidivism emerge from these studies, with reoffending rates seemingly influenced by age, gender, the number of prior custodial episodes and Indigenous status. The studies examined vary in terms of their scope from the reoffending behaviour of parolees and sex offenders to a more general analysis of those serving a custodial sentence. The results of studies specific to the reoffending behaviour of juveniles are also reviewed.

There are many factors that contribute to the reoffending behaviour of an individual. Section three (pp 15-17) discusses, amongst other things, the effect education, employment, housing and family networks have on the risk of recidivism. Many prisoners have poor education and employment histories, experience greater rates of mental illness and bad physical health, and have issues associated with drug and alcohol misuse.

Various responses are possible to the issue of recidivism. Section four (pp 18-21) discusses some of the approaches taken in the past. Legislation targeting habitual criminals that provided for their detention and control was passed in New South Wales at the start of the twentieth century. The Habitual Criminals Act 1957 (NSW) is still in force in NSW despite the recommendation of the NSW Law Reform Commission that it be repealed. Until recently, its provisions had not been utilised for some time. However, a matter concerning its application came before the High Court in 2005. Section four also discusses the various phases through which the control of crime has passed, from growth in the use of prisons, emphasis on rehabilitation, to a growing dependence on the use of incapacitation for serious offenders. This appears to have established a climate for an increase in the use of preventive detention techniques.

Many strategies have been developed with the aim of reducing recidivism. Section five (pp 22-60) provides information on just a sample of the options available. It notes the purposes of sentencing as expressed in the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW) and how various initiatives fit within this framework. Information is provided on the approach taken by the Department of Corrective Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice in New South Wales. Examples of strategies that attempt to physically prevent offenders from reoffending as well as deter them from criminal behaviour are included. Diversionary interventions and rehabilitative schemes are discussed, including information on responses to juvenile offenders, drug issues, and sex offenders. Some of these schemes operate before matters reach court or trial; other strategies are designed for those currently in prison.

In some circumstances, incapacitation is used as a means of preventing an offender from reoffending. A particular issue that has emerged is what to do with serious offenders once their sentence has concluded. Some believe that the risk posed to the community by the possibility of these offenders reoffending is sufficient to warrant their continued detention. Others stress the difficulty of accurately predicting the likelihood of reoffending and warn against unnecessarily impinging on an offender’s liberty. The legislative reactions to this and judicial responses to preventive detention legislation are analysed in section five.

There are a number of benefits to having offenders serve at least part of their sentence in the community. Community corrections schemes, notably the role of parole, are also discussed in section five. The need to assist ex-prisoners with reintegration, thus enabling many to become productive members of the community for the first time, is highlighted.