Prison Population Decline Gives 'Breathing Space' To Swamped Legal System

New figures have revealed the NSW prison population is starting to show signs of decline, after several years of rapid rises and subsequent overcrowding.

The number of adult inmates has steadily dropped over the past four months, a report released by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) has revealed.

With 13,372 prisoners currently in custody, the number is at its lowest point in six months -- a trend driven by a fall in the number of defendants remanded in custody as they await trial or sentencing.

"This is encouraging because the prison population in NSW has been rising really rapidly since 2012 to the point where it was proving difficult to build new prisons at a rate sufficient to deal with the new number of prisoners," Executive Director of BOCSAR Dr Don Weatherburn told ten daily on Monday.

Image: BOCSAR

"So this provides a bit of breathing space to catch up and put in place infrastructure to house all these people that have been imprisoned in NSW."

Nationally, prisoner numbers rose 40 percent in the five years from 2012 and the NSW government has been scrambling to ease overcrowding ever since.

In December 2017, NSW's first "pop-up prison" opened in Wellington in the state's west, followed a month later by another in the Hunter Valley town of Cessnock.

The facilities -- which were built in a third of the usual construction time due to their dormitory style layout -- form part of the government's $3.8 billion plan to expand prison capacity over the course of four years.

The design of the rapid-build prison in Wellington jail. Image: NSW Government

Dr Weatherburn says while the current population is still an "enormous amount of people", the sign of decline provides an opportunity for infrastructure to catch up with demand.

Is It The Calm Before The Storm?

There are distinguishable trends in the way prison population rates change over time which are the direct result of factors other than the amount of crime being committed, Dr Weatherburn explained.

"What tends to happen is the prison population surges in the first half of the year and then as the courts get underway they manage to deal with the cases and so there are fewer people on remand," he said.

Over the past few years the legal system appears to have been unable to spark this mid-year decline and as a result, numbers have continued to rise and exacerbate overcrowding issues.

Berrima Correctional Centre was reopened in 2016 to faciliate the booming prison population. The jail closed in 2011, the year before rates began to rise significantly. Image: Heritage Branch

But while the latest report has delivered the promising sign of a decline, a rise is still predicted over the coming summer months which typically see higher crime rates.

As more social events kick off and annual celebrations including Christmas and New Years gear up, alcohol-related violence and violent crime rates begin to climb.

"The added complication is the courts shut down in summer," Dr Weatherburn said.

"So you’ve got more people coming into jail but the courts aren’t processing them, so the number of people held on remand goes up."

In 2016, the government was considering reopening Parramatta jail, which closed in 2011. Image: Getty

BOCSAR currently expects little growth in the imprisonment rate over the 12 months, with an expectation the number will reach 13,720 by September next year.

This prediction is based on the assumption nothing much will change during this time which, as Dr Weatherburn admits, is seldom the case.