The WA Parole Board’s current chair, Narelle Johnson, has an interesting approach to officers of the state delivering verdicts on imprisonment to prisoners:
Damien Carrick: It’s been put to me that there have been a number of changes to the way that the board operates. Previously, there were video link-ups between the prison and the offices where the board is sitting, and this would give the prisoner the opportunity to put their case to the board, face-to-face, or at least via videolink. Why has this been stopped?
Narelle Johnson: …Well it’s very difficult, often, to actually look someone in the eye, and say, ‘Well no, we’re not going to release you,’ particularly perhaps members of the community who are on the board have some difficulty with that. And so you are more inclined to make an emotional decision rather than an informed decision. And I’m told by the psychologists on our board that in fact there’s some literature to support the problems in decision-making when they’re made face-to-face. And certainly I’ve had some experience of that myself, listening to a person, thinking ‘Well yes, I’d love to help that person’, but then going away and looking at the file and thinking, ‘Well actually I would not be doing my job properly if I did accede to that request.’
I wonder what kind of shrinking violets they have on that board, making those very serious decisions with which they apparently don’t feel comfortable. In courts around the country, every day, Judicial officers make decisions about offenders’ freedom, and they do it face to face. They have reasons for their decisions, they give them, and they are prepared to stand by them.
What kind of Parole Board is too gutless to give its decisions straight to the people affected?
Apart from establishing a bureaucratic “we’ll decide without you present” system for assessing parole applications, Justice Johnson has also implemented changes such that parolees committing minor offences for which they would not previously have been breached, are now sent right back to prison:
Drug use, as I said, reoffending, people who are released on the basis that they attend counselling and who don’t bother to attend. Matters of that nature. Now in prison, if you take drugs, or you breach the rules, there is a consequence. And so it’s difficult to argue that when you go out on parole, when you have the privilege of being released during your term of imprisonment, that suddenly there should be no consequences to you breaching the conditions upon which you were released.
I don’t think anyone’s ever suggested that there should be “no consequences” for minor offending on parole – just that those consequences shouldn’t be utterly devastating and counterproductive.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the point of parole is to help reduce the risk of reoffending as prisoners are prepared for integration back into the community. It’s actually there for our benefit as much as theirs. Consequently, “zero tolerance” approaches like immediately reimprisoning a parolee who commits a minor offence (particularly something like drug use), which does occasionally happen as they find their feet again, without bothering to trying to help them overcome that issue with the services available, simply defers the problem to when they are eventually released – and when that jail sentence is no longer hanging over their head. As a member of the community (and judicial officers should really have a serious think about what “community expectations” really means – hint: it’s not necessarily the same as “what the Herald Sun says it is”), I’d really much rather we applied a practical, realistic approach that has a hope of working.
Meanwhile, WA prisons are now ridiculously overcrowded, with a jump of 25% in the last year, which I expect the conservative WA government will now address by wasting vast sums of public money on new prisons. This is what happens when the community lets itself, and consequently its representatives, be led by the nose by the “laura norder” charlatans. And it’s a perfectly self-perpetuating system: the more they take these counter-productive and expensive “lock ’em all up” approaches that don’t address the causes of crime, the problem gets worse, which in turn is seen as a reason to get even tougher, which makes the problem worse, and so on.
Meanwhile, Victoria is being massively ripped off by the private prison industry, according to a new report by the Auditor-General, highlighting the reality of what happens at the end of the laura norder campaign, when prisons are bursting and the politicians realise that the only way they can afford to build more is to throw it open to private industry at whatever terms they demand. Of course the contracts signed in such desperation are dodgy.
And who can be surprised, when the “lock ’em all up” crowd are the only people making enough noise for the politicians to hear?
UPDATE: Crikey reports on an even dumber idea out of WA – “Prohibited Behaviour Orders”. Ignoring the injustice of being banned permanently from quite lawful behaviour, they include even more insane provisions:
The PBO laws compel courts to publish on the web photographs, names and suburbs of juveniles 16 years and over. Predictably, this labels young people for the rest of their lives, reducing the likelihood of the offenders rehabilitating themselves, getting a job or becoming in any way productive members of the community.
It really is the Wild West out there, isn’t it?