By KIERAN FINNANE
Although the NT Government is putting the emphasis on “tough” sanctions for breaches, its new parole program is as much about supporting prisoners released on parole to stay out of gaol.
Inherently, that means not reoffending, thereby crime is reduced and so the program will contribute to making the community safer, the government’s other emphasis.
From next month, what they are calling the Parole Sanctions Matrix will deliver intense supervision for parolees, including random drug testing and residential rehabilitation, with “swift, certain and fair” sanctions for any breaches of parole conditions.
Announced by Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Natasha Fyles last Thursday, these sanctions are: “swift action with an appearance in court” and “fair, predictable and immediate sanction by the court”, as laid out “in a predetermined matrix”. Although it is not mentioned in her announcement, the sanctions do involve gaol time.
Said Ms Fyles (left): “It is clear that the current ‘all or nothing’ approach to non-compliance is not working.
“This program sets clear boundaries and encourages better decision making by delivering fast, fair and predictable consequences for parolees who breach their conditions.
“Parolees learn to self-regulate in a community environment with intense scrutiny and clearly outlined punishments that are swiftly enforced.”
The Parole Sanctions Matrix extends a regime already offered to adult prisoners on a suspended sentence. This program is called COMMIT (Compliance Management or Incarceration in the Territory) and is borrowed from Hawaii’s Opportunity with Probation Enforcement or HOPE, first launched in that state in 2004 and since replicated elsewhere in the USA. It has been positively evaluated (see footnote at bottom) and has won a number of awards.
Former Country Liberal Attorney-General John Elferink (right) became interested in trialling COMMIT in the NT three years after his government closed down, without any evaluation, the court known as SMART (Substance Misuse Assessment and Referral for Treatment) which had been set up during Labor’s previous regime. The SMART court was also about supervising and supporting people under suspended sentence to stay out gaol, but sanctions involving actual gaol time were deferred and Mr Elferink regarded it as “soft on crime”.
The trial of COMMIT, which uses immediate short bursts of gaol time, in accordance with a matrix, as its sanctions, began in June last year, in the dying days of of the Country Liberal government.
Unlike the SMART court, whose program was not available to violent offenders, COMMIT is not limited by offence type, but like the SMART court it does target offenders who have a history of drug and/or alcohol misuse as a factor in their offending, and who have a history of non-compliance with previous supervision orders.
According to Glen Dooley, Principal Lawyer with Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Services (CAALAS), the true “trail blazer” for COMMIT has been Justice Stephen Southwood who, having heard of HOPE’s success, began to use it as a sentencing option for offenders on probation under suspended sentences. Its application in these instances didn’t involve legislative change.
Having seen its promise, says Mr Dooley, Justice Southwood (left), who chairs the Parole Board, then started the push to have the regime extended to parolees. This required the amendment of the Parole Act announced by Ms Fyles, which from the end of this month will allow COMMIT to also be an option for parolees. Justice Southwood explains the distinction:
Under a sentence of imprisonment with a non-parole period, the offender is required to serve the head sentence specified by the Court in prison unless the Parole Board (not the Court) determines the prisoner may be released into the community after the expiry of the non-parole period.
Under a suspended sentence, an offender is released back into the community automatically after serving the time in prison specified by the Court, but is on probation for the duration of the suspended sentence. The Court decides whether an offender with a suspended sentence should be subject to the COMMIT program.
Parole does not involve automatic release and an offender must demonstrate to the Parole Board that they are ready to be released. The Parole Board will not release a person to parole unless they have suitable accommodation and support and do not pose an unmanageable risk to the community. The introduction of COMMIT Parole does not change that requirement, says Justice Southwood.
Further, it is the Parole Board, not the Court, who will decide whether an offender on parole should be subject to the COMMIT program.
Mr Dooley (right) welcomes the program as an incentive to prisoners to take up their parole options. The gaol is full, with its population swollen by significant numbers of prisoners who could be out on parole if they chose to go, he says. To date, too many have found dealing with the Parole Board and complying with all their conditions too hard.
Having supervision and support in place to assist compliance and very clear consequences for non-compliance (which nonetheless fall short of full re-instatement of the remainder of the sentence) seems to be working for probationers and should be attractive to potential parolees.
He says CAALAS will start doing some come community legal education in the prison, including in Aboriginal languages, to encourage potential parolees to take up this option.
The COMMIT trial to date has involved 72 probationers, with the early results looking “very promising”, says Justice Southwood.
The vast majority have either not violated their probation conditions or violated them only once or twice. Those who did were sent to prison in accordance with the sanctions matrix. Only a “very small number” have committed new offences.
Community Corrections have been collecting the necessary data for evaluation but it is too early to analyse it. “Two years is the standard period for assessing recidivism,” says Justice Southwood.
The trial so far has been based primarily in Darwin, but it has taken in a number of offenders in Alice Springs and some in more remote areas, mainly as a result of Justice Southwood taking his turn on the bench, which happens one or twice a year. Mr Dooley says Judge John Lowndes (the NT’s Chief Judge) has also begun using COMMIT in Local Court sentencing and has talked about its wider application in the Centre.
It is hoped that the program will eventually be extended to “as large an area of the NT as resources will allow”, says Justice Southwood.
The constraints on expansion include suitable accommodation for parolees, access to residential rehabilitation services, extent of electronic monitoring capacity, extent of facilities to conduct urinalysis, and availability and location of parole officers.
The NT Government has provided $2m to fund additional rehabilitation beds, and counsellor positions. COMMIT offenders are also intensively case managed by their probation and parole officers and provided with support and assistance with employment, training and housing. Community Corrections fund transitional accommodation facilities in Alice Springs and have approval to fund an additional house in Darwin.
Evaluations of HOPE (reported on The Conversation in an article considering whether Australia should have “swift and certain sanctions” programs, here.)
The National Institute of Justice funded a randomised-controlled trial evaluation comparing 330 high-risk drug offenders on HOPE with 163 similar offenders on standard probation. Compared with the control group, HOPE offenders were:
• 55% less likely to be arrested for a new crime;
• 53% less likely to have their probation revoked;
• 72% less likely to test positive for illegal drugs; and
• 61% less likely to miss appointments with their probation officers.
Offenders on HOPE also spent 48% fewer days in prison.
A process evaluation found that probation officers, offenders and defence lawyers were enthusiastic about the programme. However, prosecutors and court employees were less pleased, with court staff reporting increased workloads.
By KIERAN FINNANE