Sentenced to a Job is a prison-based program in the NT first planned under Labor but implemented and developed under the current Country Liberal government. It seems like a good idea but is it working?
Crime and punishment are subjects that have fascinated me ever since I moved to the Northern Territory almost 33 years ago. Crime in the Territory is truly appalling by any measure. Statistics go up and down a bit from year to year, seemingly independent of any policies introduced by the government of the day: usually law and order-based and designed solely for electoral consumption by lowest common denominator voters. Predictably crime rates remain dreadful.
In a very real sense that actually isn’t the government’s fault. The Territory has a much younger population than the national average, a high Aboriginal population, and extremely high alcohol consumption. All those factors correlate with high crime rates, and only alcohol consumption is capable of being influenced by short-term government policy, and then only at the margin. Moreover, any government that paid any more than lip service to reducing alcohol consumption would be committing electoral suicide. Consequently neither party has ever seriously addressed the issue.
The Territory’s overall crime rate is three times the Australian average while the imprisonment rate is 4.5 times the national average (both per 100,000 population). Crime went up 19% in 2013-14 and appears to have stayed about the same overall in the year to 31 August 2015 (crimes against the person down by 4.2% but property crimes up by 5.5%). The suffering behind those numbers, both for victims and offenders, is incalculable.
That’s why I was deeply interested when long-time friend and Labor spin doctor Jamie Gallacher mentioned to me in 2012 that the Henderson government was planning to implement an innovative prison program to be called Sentenced to a Job.
It had been proposed by newly appointed Corrections Commissioner Ken Middlebrook and involved lower security prisoners having real jobs and working in the community acquiring skills and earning both a wage and self-esteem. Given that 85% of prisoners are Aboriginal and most have few if any vocational skills and have never had a job, it sounded promising.
Jamie promised to line up an appointment with Commissioner Middlebrook when I expressed an interest in studying and writing about the plan. However the ALP lost government before it could be arranged.
Fortunately the new Country Liberal government decided to embrace the plan under Attorney-General John Elferink. As Sue Erickson explained in a brief article in the Alternative Law Journal:
The government encourages local businesses that specialise in food services, laundry, horticulture, mechanical, textiles, upholstery, metal fabrication, number plate production, screen printing, furniture products, construction, maintenance, and packaging and assembly to recruit prisoners while they are serving their sentence. Prisoners who may participate in the scheme are assessed by the Department of Correctional Services and are generally within the last 12 months of their sentence of imprisonment.
Prisoners who perform paid work are paid an award wage, but contribute five per cent of their salaries to support victims of crime, pay rent (in turn, reducing the cost of their incarceration) and pay taxes. The prisoners keep a small amount of money from their salary (around $60 per week), while the rest is held in a trust and released to them on completion of their sentence. …
Prisoners have the opportunity to develop skills and qualifications and may gainfully return to the workforce after they have served their sentence or may continue being employed with their employer from the scheme. There is a high rate of unemployment with prisoners and, for some, their first job is through the Sentenced to a Job scheme.
Sentenced to a Job has been running for just over 2 years now. Attorney-General Elferink says preliminary figures show that recidivism (re-offending) rates after 2 years of release have dropped from around 50% to around 20% for offenders on the program. If true that is phenomenal success. Unfortunately there are no published figures yet, and you’d rather expect the government to be shouting such a success from the rooftops if verified.
I can’t help suspecting that there’s a bit of cherry-picking (or comparing apples with pears) going on. The only official NT recidivism study I can find on the Internet is from 2001-2. It shows recidivism rates after 2 years ranged between 15% for non-Indigenous prisoners to 45% for Indigenous prisoners generally and 51% for young Indigenous prisoners (see executive summary page 2). It seems quite likely that the prisoners selected for Sentenced to a Job are probably skewed towards offenders from the lower risk/recidivism categories. If that’s true then you would need some quite careful analysis to get an accurate picture of the extent of any real positive effect on re-offending rates.
Nevertheless, I certainly hope the program is meeting with success. God knows we need it.