By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
NSW premier Dominic Perrottet has a set of fourteen priorities, one of which aims to reduce the adult recidivism rate in this state by 5 percent by 2023.
The recidivism, or reoffending, rate involves the number of inmates leaving prison and being reconvicted within a certain timeframe.
Statistics show that of the prisoners that left NSW correctional centres in 2019, 42 percent were reconvicted within 12 months.
UNSW Professor Eileen Baldry explained in 2017, that there are a significant number of prisoners that come out of prison every year after having served sentences of less than 12 months. And many of these inmates aren’t actually captured in the official prisoner population statistics.
This flow population, which accounts for the majority of inmates, don’t always qualify for rehabilitation or they don’t get time to finish it.
Indeed, a 2017 Audit Office of NSW report found that 75 percent of inmates identified for a program don’t participate prior to their earliest parole date.
Accounting for around 80 percent of the total population inside, those sentenced to less than 12 months imprisonment have a recidivism rate of approximately 44 percent.
So, in order to provide rehabilitation to this group, ten High Intensity Program Units were established in purpose-built structures across seven NSW correctional facilities over 2017 and 2018 with the aim of delivering behavioural change programs to prisoners on shorter sentences.
However, on having appraised the HIPU scheme over its five years of operations ending in June last year, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) has found that the high intensity units have proven ineffective in reducing recidivism rates.
The HIPU process
Released last week, the Estimating the Effectiveness of the High Intensity Program Units on Reoffending report outlines that HIPUs deliver a three-staged course with three types of assistance, intensive behaviour change programs, reintegration services and enhanced release planning.
The first stage consists of inmates being assessed as to their eligibility for the program. Those with their index offence being sexual in nature are ruled out of taking part, whilst high-risk offenders, First Nations inmates and those with sentences of less than 12 months are prioritised.
The next phase involves eligible inmates attending up to eight two-hour group sessions a week, with participation requirements tailored to each prisoner’s needs. The minimum expectation is 120 hours of participation in a program, which is based on cognitive behavioural therapy principles.
The final phase is that of exiting the program. Participants who complete the entire HIPU process are then recommended to attend follow up services to address any identified needs. Service referrals are based on whether the inmate will be released immediately or if they still need to serve time.
The BOCSAR report further outlines that all Corrective Services NSW behavioural change programs are based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and/or dialectical behavioural therapy. And they seek to “identify and challenge distortions” in prisoner thinking.
The process taken
Report author Min-Taec Kim explains that the HIPU study involved 700-odd individuals identified as eligible for the HIPU program between August 2017 and October 2019, with the cut-off date for their release being 1 January 2020.
The researchers sought to estimate the impact HIPUs have on reoffending, violent reoffending and reimprisonment at 3-, 6- and 12-months’ worth of post-release time. This was done amongst three different comparative groups who’d been identified as eligible.
The study groups consisted of a comparison of individuals based on completion status, those who didn’t begin, dropped out or finished, a comparison by number of hours completed regardless of status, and a comparison based on the hours completed by those who left due to insufficient time.
An ineffective approach
“Across the three approaches, we do not find any persuasive evidence for a reduction in reoffending caused by participation in a program at a HIPU,” the BOCSAR report outlines, adding that where there are differences based on completion status, the figures “are not statistically significant”.
In terms of hours spent in a HIPU program, the study found that there wasn’t significant evidence in a reduction in reoffending. The statistics suggest that at 3 months after release there had been a reduction, but the figures for the 6- and 12-month points suggest an increase.
As for those who finished the program because of insufficient time, of 389 individuals, 203 didn’t begin the program, while 186 started but didn’t complete it due to being released. And again, these statistics show slight differences between not starting and having begun, but they’re insignificant.
Currently, HIPU sites operate at Bathurst gaol, the correctional facility at Cooma, Dillwynia Correctional Centre, the Mid-North Coast Correctional Centre, Shortland prison, the South Coast Correctional Centre and Wellington gaol.
The BOCSAR report sets out that because of the approach taken to the analysis of how these units are operating, the inquiry outcomes would have overestimated the impact of the HIPUs and therefore, it found the program to not be effective on those inmates serving shorter sentences.
Two issues were detected that may lead to HIPU ineffectiveness. These involve its application time having been expanded to include inmates serving up to 3 years inside, as well as many participants having finished well before release, which limited their engagement with reintegration components.
“The HIPUs were originally intended to deliver behaviour change programs to a large cohort of individuals who would otherwise not have had access to any programs whilst in custody,” the report continues.
And it goes on to recommend that future consideration be given as to whether the treatment model has been rolled out in the way it was initially intended, and this discussion should include whether the expansion of eligibility is helpful, along with providing deeper analyses of each component.
As the Premier’s Priorities webpage advises, the reason why these prisoners are of particular concern is the government considers there are a small group of persistent reoffenders serving short sentences who are “responsible for the majority of serious crimes in NSW”.
“Continued development of the HIPUs, and ongoing evaluation,” the report concludes, “is imperative given the gap in service delivery for prisoners serving short sentences and the potential impact of intensive CBT-based programs in curtailing offending amongst this high-volume, high-risk cohort.”