The effective sacking of NT Corrective Services Commissioner Ken Middlebrook is sad but politically inevitable. It came in the wake of the escape and subsequent voluntary surrender of axe murder and rapist Edward Horrell from a Sentenced to a Job work gang near Nhulunbuy.
Minister John Elferink had emphasised after some earlier Sentenced to a Job escapes that only low security prisoners were permitted to participate in the program and that sexual assault offenders were absolutely banned. In view of that promise, Horrell should not have been on the program and it was appropriate that Middlebrook as the Commissioner should tender his resignation in those circumstances. A Prison Officers’ Association spokesperson asserted that Horrell’s admission to the program could only have been personally approved by the Commissioner.
Some have suggested that Minister Elferink should also have resigned or been sacked as a result. However that does not reflect the modern Australian concept of Ministerial responsibility unless Elferink knew Horrell or other sex offenders were being allowed to participate, or unless personal not just organisational organisational responsibility could be sheeted home to him for some other reason. As Richard Mulgan explains:
Whether ministers do resign depends on a range of factors, including the seriousness of the alleged failure, the extent of the minister’s personal responsibility and a political calculation (ultimately by the prime minister) about the consequences for the government’s standing of either accepting or rejecting the resignation.
The fact that Elferink had felt compelled to promise that sexual assault offenders were banned from the program was no doubt politically necessary to maintain public confidence in Sentenced to a Job, but that doesn’t mean an absolute ban on rapists (or for that matter murderers) actually makes sense from a rational policy perspective. Almost all of them will eventually be released into the community, hopefully initially under reasonably stringent parole supervision, and so reducing recidivism (re-offending) is a critical aspect of any effective crime reduction strategy. NT recidivism rates typically run at more than 50% after 2 years. In other words, half of all prisoners released will have committed another crime serious enough to land them back in prison within 2 years of release.
In those circumstances, clearly any well designed program aiming at providing prisoners with job skills and on-the-job experience and life skills (like Sentenced to a Job) is a good idea and should be endorsed and supported by the public. Similarly with parole supervision programs that provide appropriate levels of support after release to give offenders a good chance to “go straight” and settle into a productive, law-abiding life in the community.
That objective is at least as valid and important for rapists and murderers as for any other offender, although obviously community protection will assume a higher priority as against rehabilitation than with less potentially dangerous categories of offenders. However, it would appear that Horrell had already served 20 years imprisonment, had been well behaved in prison, and was classified as low security. That would suggest he may well have been an appropriate candidate for a work release program, rather than releasing him directly into the community without any such preparation, had it not been for Minister Elferink’s promise that no sexual assault offenders would ever be allowed to participate.
A version of Daniel’s Law (publication of names and contact details of convicted and released serious sex offenders) is proposed for introduction in the NT. It raises similar concerns about its effect on recidivism, as criminal lawyer Russell Goldflam persuasively argues.
It will always be politically difficult to implement and maintain public confidence in programs aimed at reducing recidivism, even though they are demonstrably important aspects of crime reduction, an objective everyone professes to support. It is always easy to whip up a “soft on crime” scare campaign when a prisoner or parolee escapes or commits another high profile crime (as will inevitably occasionally happen in the best designed and administered system). Oppositions seldom resist the temptation to run an expedient “law and order” campaign in those circumstances.
Minister Elferink deserves credit for introducing and continuing to support Sentenced to a Job despite media and public controversy. He deserves no credit at all for introducing Daniel’s Law: a stupid, populist measure which will ultimately prove counter-productive and make crime worse rather than better.