Sentenced to a Job – is it working?

900335-590d82f2-f539-11e4-8c72-1927143d54c4Sentenced 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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Nicholas Gruen
8 years ago

Often these interventions are well meaning but are dominated by the thinking of a particular cognitive ruling class or classes. In this case it’s likely to be the legal/policing/incarceration professions.

In my own experience I’ve been struck by how much this deformation professionnelle can get things wrong in the case of social workers. Seeing how the Australian Centre for Social Innovation’s co-designed interventions work opened my eyes and might well add a lot to the efficacy of this well intentioned intervention something I suggested in this post:

The NSW Drug Court operates by suspending the sentences of prisoners and bringing them into a regime where their progress and their liberty is reassessed every week in a court hearing before a judge. This is combined with some counselling resources and drug tests three times weekly. They must attend all appointments on time, and they must self-declare all breaches of their conditions in their weekly court hearing. When they acquire 14 ‘sanctions’ or recorded failures to meet these conditions (and with their chaotic lives they often they acquire several in a single week) they are sent back to prison detox unit for 14 days and so the process goes on until they either graduate to stages two and three which involve progressively less intense supervision after which they graduate altogether. The alternative throughout is that they simply lose their place in the program and complete their prison sentence.

As you can see, it’s hardly ‘soft’. Just a sensible adaptation of the prison system and its resources to the challenge which the radio programs show you is an immense one, of rebuilding the life of a person who’s leant on drugs to get them through their life for often at least one, and frequently two or more decades, while their life has fallen further and further apart, while what semblance there was of order in their lives has been thoroughly white-anted, whose whole identity and social network is built on their life on drugs and outside the law. So it’s pretty much out of the fire of prison and into the frying pan of a Skinner box of active operant conditioning.

It still struck me how legally based the program still was. I have no problem with the legal architecture. A court hearing once a week might make a lot of sense, but it seemed to me the program, as good as it seemed to be was still crying out for more peer support mechanisms such as those we build in TACSI, in addition to – and probably in replacement of some of – the professional support.

8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

As a lawyer, I couldn’t agree more.

8 years ago

Even if it didn’t affect recidivism (there are certainly people who are more less impossible to help), it may well help those who wern’t going to go back in anyway, so there are other measures that are probably worth looking at that would also be worthwhile markers of the success of the program (employment rates, family disruption, alcoholism, and so on).

Rob Bray
Rob Bray
8 years ago

When I read the program description I get a feeling that the program might be better cast in a positive light as ‘guaranteed a job’ – not ‘sentenced to a job’.

This raises several questions. The first is the relationship between unemployment and recividism – and how much of the effect is that of providing a job for people (and one that pays award wages and not work the dole rates or those paid in marginal employment) rather than leaving them unemployed and excluded. (With time on their hands and no money in their pockets.) The second is the language of ‘sentenced to a job’ – this language seems carry with it the implication of this group being work shy etc and seems to be more directed at the middle class voters who believe this to be the case – both concepts which cause me some concern.