Prisoner amnesty urged

MEDIA RELEASE 16 July 2009

Prison Reform Group of Western Australia

Attorney General Christian Porter should give consideration to a prisoner amnesty similar to
that proposed by New Zealand’s Chief Justice as a way to stem the rising prison population.

Dame Sian Elias, who’s had more than 40 years in the criminal justice field, recently told the
NZ Law Society that she accepts “retribution is a proper response for serious crime” but
that “all the evidence and informed opinions seem to point to the futility of believing that
the causes of crime can be addressed by penal policy and the criminal justice process…
Penal policy is largely irrelevant to reduction of crime and making our communities safest”.

Citing a cost of $100,000 a year for keeping an offender in prison versus $10.04 for
maintaining someone on a community based sentence (NZ figures) Dame Sian went on to
say that “reducing sentence levels would reduce the prison population, not only by cutting
the length of prison terms but also by bringing more sentences within the bounds set for
community-based sanctions, including home detention”.

Suggesting the use of “direct tools to manage the prison population”, Dame Sian noted that
“other countries use executive amnesties to send prisoners into the community early to
prevent overcrowding.

“If we are not prepared to relax the pressures to contain risk in the discretionary decisions
as to bail and parole, the only other immediate options may be to confront the length of
sentence (effecting an overall reduction in sentence)… and early release amnesty,’ Dame
Sian concluded.

This is a view endorsed strongly by WA’s Prison Reform Group, which today called on Mr
Porter to give consideration to an executive amnesty for all prisoners with less than six
months left to serve on their sentences and for all women currently held in the Boronia pre-
release facility.

“Such a move would release the immediate pressure on WA’s overcrowded prisons,” noted
Group spokesperson Rex Widerstrom. “It would free up places at Boronia for women
currently held at Bandyup, and at the various low-security prisons and prison farms for male
prisoners confined in high security at Casuarina, Hakea and similar facilities.

“While it is the government’s duty to do what it can to prevent crime, as Dame Sian notes
the length of sentences actually has little or no effect on community safety.

“So against Mr Porter’s desire to be seen to take a vote-winning stance as ‘tough on law ‘n’
order’ must be balanced the huge social costs of being unable to build hospitals and schools
whilst the money is spent on more prisons.

“Many governments have provided amnesty at the lower end of the security scale without
incurring some sort of ‘rising tide of crime’ on their streets,” Mr Widerstrom noted. “We’re
not talking about releasing violent criminals who’ve done little or no rehabilitative work in
prison. We’re focusing the call for an amnesty on low security prisoners with exemplary
behaviour records whilst in prison, with six months or less to serve.

“The Attorney General clearly likes to be perceived as taking a tough stance on crime.
Tough it may be, but it’s clearly not effective” (see figures below).


The March quarter 2009 national average daily imprisonment rate was 167 prisoners per
100,000 adult population. Western Australia reported a rate of 241 per 100,000 adults. And
that figure is rising, not falling, despite the present government’s stance.

Western Australia First Thursday July 2009 First Thursday July 2008
Total in prison 4419 3780
Sentenced 3711 2998
Remand 689 761
Aboriginal & TSI 1787 (40.4%) 1551
Women 341 275

Total in Juvenile Detention 144 166
Sentenced 84 79
Un-sentenced 60 87
Aboriginal & TSI 112 (77.8%) 125 (75.3%)
Young Indigenous 104 males 8 females
Young non-Indigenous 29 males 3 females

Contact: Rex Widerstrom 0400 133 854
or: Dr Brian Steels 0419 907 016

Link to original story (including a downloadable copy of Dame Sian’s speech):


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