How the Department of Corrections (the Department) manages offenders on parole is an area of great public, political, and media interest, especially given recent high-profile cases where offenders on parole have committed further serious offences.
My staff looked at how the Department managed offenders released on parole. We chose 100 offender case files in the four areas we visited to assess whether probation officers and other staff were managing offenders in keeping with the Department's requirements. We deliberately included 52 offenders considered to pose a high risk to the public.
In most of those 100 case files, the Department had not followed one or more of its own sentence management requirements. Five of the requirements that my staff checked are the most important, in my view, for keeping the public safe, and one or more of these five requirements had not been followed in most of the 100 cases. There were several cases, some of which I have included in my report, where the Department had not completed important sentence management requirements at each stage of an offender's parole, and we concluded that the Department was not managing these cases adequately. The Department has told us that it has fixed the deficiencies that my staff found in the 100 cases and reviewed other high-risk cases to fix similar deficiencies.
Many of the Department's procedures for managing offenders on parole are in place to keep the public safe. If the Department does not follow all of the important procedures when managing an offender, I am concerned that the cumulative effect undermines the Department's ability to protect the public.
The Department's job is not an easy one. It operates 20 prisons and about 150 Community Probation and Psychological Services centres nationwide. On any given day, the Department's staff manage about 8000 prisoners and about 35,000 people serving community-based sentences and orders. This includes about 1800 offenders who have been released from prison early on parole. The offenders on parole that the Department is managing have served prison sentences and often have little experience of complying with time frames. These offenders can be unpredictable, and often have difficulty re-integrating into the community.
The performance audit my staff carried out has led to 20 recommendations, most of which urge the Department to always follow its own procedures. In my view, because of the potential risks to public safety, any non-compliance with some of the Department's requirements and procedures is cause for concern. The five recommendations that I am most concerned about are that the Department make sure that:
- the proposed accommodation of offenders will not be problematic for victims;
- probation officers regularly visit offenders in their homes;
- senior staff oversee how probation officers manage high-risk offenders;
- enforcement action is consistent and prompt; and
- victims are notified promptly about certain enforcement actions relating to an offender's parole.
The Department recognises that there are problems to be resolved, and has provided me with a detailed response to my report. It has already introduced some changes and I have noted these in my report. The Department has also said that it is taking further action, and this is set out in Appendix 2.
The Department says that it has around 10% fewer probation officers than it needs to manage offenders in keeping with parole requirements. This is because of the increasing numbers of offenders on new community-based sentences, which were introduced in 2007. The Department received some extra funding to increase the number of probation officers to manage offenders on the new sentences. However, the new sentencing options have been applied at a rate faster than expected, and this has exacerbated the Department's existing staffing issues.
The Department intends to apply for more funding in 2009 to recruit and train more probation officers. The Department told us that, if the bid is successful, the extra probation officers will not be recruited and fully trained until the middle of 2011.
In the areas my staff visited, it was clear that staffing issues had a significant effect on the Department's ability to manage offenders on parole. However, in my view, recruiting more probation officers will not fix all the problems my staff found. The Department also needs to identify and address the reasons for the recurring non-compliance with important requirements for managing offenders.
After my staff had finished their audit fieldwork, the Department reduced the frequency of some offender management requirements - such as home visits for some offenders and some of the supervision requirements for high-risk offenders - to alleviate the strain on the parole system. The Department decided which requirements to reduce, based on the knowledge and experience of its senior staff. The Department says that these reductions are temporary.
In my view, the Department should also have reliable data supporting its decisions. Work to reduce the strain on the parole system needs to be underpinned by information about how effective different requirements are in reducing risks to the public's safety. The Department also needs data from the justice sector on likely future demands on the parole system so that it can effectively plan for meeting those demands. For example, the Department told us that there are no forecasts of the potential growth in the number of offenders serving community-based sentences. The justice sector urgently needs to produce such information.
If offenders on parole are not adequately managed in keeping with parole requirements, public safety is put at greater risk. Given the nature and extent of what we have found, I will be closely watching the Department's progress in implementing our recommendations.
I thank the many Department staff and others we interviewed for their help and co-operation during this audit.
K B Brady
Controller and Auditor-General
10 February 2009