This article was originally published in The Age on June 17, 2010. It was written by Hal Sperling & Dr Alex Wodak (President, ADLRF) (click to access)

It isn’t smart to hold election auctions on tougher penalties.

IN THE run-up to the next state election, Victoria has started a law-and-order auction. Until now, unlike New South Wales, Victoria has avoided such things.

Law and order has been an election issue since the 1980s in NSW, yet for the 2008-09 financial year, the state had an imprisonment rate of 184.8 per 100,000 adults, nearly double that of Victoria at 103.6 per 100,000.

Crime rates are lower in Victoria across nearly all categories. And, worldwide, there is no clear positive relationship between the severity of prison sentences and the crime rate.

The law-and-order auction assumes that people want tougher sentences. Some do. For victims of crime and their families, no sentence is heavy enough. They want revenge. That is understandable, but it is not an objective response.

Retribution is a different sentiment. It is a response to wrongdoing shared by the community at large. It explains why people used to take their children and a picnic lunch to public hangings.

We have gone past that now, but retribution is still there. It is the chord that politicians strike when they call for tougher penalties.

It cannot be assumed, however, that retribution is now the prevailing attitude in the community. Recent studies in Britain indicate that a lot of people are more interested in offenders making recompense than in punishment for the sake of punishment. That would suggest that the community would be just as satisfied – perhaps more satisfied – with visible and useful community service as the penalty for much of the crime that currently attracts a prison sentence.

Retribution and making recompense are emotional responses. There is another side to the coin – commonsense.

Locking up prisoners is expensive, costing more than $70,000 per inmate per year. If Victoria had the incarceration rate of NSW, the cost of its penal system would be increased by close to half a billion dollars every year.

The state would have to raise taxes, borrow, or cut health and education or other services. Is this what Victorians really want?

A lot of people have to be locked up to reduce the crime rate even slightly – and benefits are only short term. In the long term, prison may have a negative effect by actually increasing crime. About half the prisoners released from jail are back again within two years. As Douglas Hurd, a retired senior British conservative politician, said in the 1990s, ”Prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse.”

If we wanted to be smart about crime, rather than just tough on crime, we would take a very different approach.

First, we would invest a lot more resources on early intervention with problem families. ”Early intervention” refers to regular home visits by specially trained healthcare workers to infants born to high-risk families.

Remarkably impressive benefits have been reported from modest interventions. There is evidence of improved attendance at school, reduced alcohol and drug use in teenagers and young adults, and reduced crime. But early intervention is not readily available in Australia.

Second, we should increase funding for community mental health and alcohol and drug treatment programs that are based on evidence. For every 100 heroin users on methadone treatment for a year in NSW, a study conducted by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research showed that there were 12 fewer robberies, 57 fewer break and enters and 56 fewer motor vehicle thefts.

The global financial crisis is going to force governments to make some savage cuts. Better to cut expensive and low-impact services, such as prisons, than inexpensive and high-impact services, such as early intervention with problem families and evidence-based community services.

Most judges and magistrates hate having to send the less serious offenders to prison. But they are forced to do so because there are so few options in the community. We should be debating the role of imprisonment for these groups. A distinction is to be made in relation to offenders who have committed seriously violent crimes. No one would doubt that heavy sentences are required in such cases. But they represent a minority of offenders.

The United States locks up four times as many people per capita as NSW – that is why the US accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s prison inmates despite having 5 per cent of the world’s population. And, despite this, the US has much higher crime rates than Australia. With an incarceration rate of 754 per 100,000 resident population, a debate about the size of the prison population has at last begun in that country. Let’s hope our prison population does not have to get to that size before we start thinking about other options.

Australia began as a British penal colony in the 18th century, when Britain considered that prisons might be a way of solving its then severe social problems. Of all people, Australians should not make the same mistake.

Hal Sperling is a retired NSW Supreme Court judge and convener of the Crime and Justice Reform Committee. Dr Alex Wodak is director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.