Tougher national parole laws won’t end the violence

Police speak with members of the public outside the Buckingham Serviced Apartments in Brighton, Melbourne, following the violent attack on Monday night. AAP/Julian Smith

Sadly, another horrific episode under the banner of Islamist extremism is front-page news. This time the perpetrator was a 29-year-old Somali-born Victorian man, Yacqub Khayre, described as a “weakling, deserter and a jihadi of convenience”.

On Monday, armed with a sawn-off shotgun and having removed his electronic monitoring bracelet, he killed a newlywed father and engaged in a suicidal shoot-out with police.

It transpires that Khayre was on parole, granted in November 2016 after he had served four years of a 5½-year sentence for an aggravated burglary committed while on the drug ice. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was incredulous. “How was he on parole?” he asked. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was equally outraged.

Is there a case for an overhaul of nationwide parole laws? At the outset, we need to note the limited role that the Commonwealth government can play, as only a tiny proportion of Australia’s prisoners are incarcerated for federal offences. So, a nationally consistent parole system is unlikely, indeed unrealistic, given that the states and territories each manage their respective sentencing and corrections legislative regimes.

Moreover, as much as we might find this difficult to concede in the light of recent events, lone-actor, grievance-fuelled violence cannot be solved simply by tightening justice processes.

Numerous factors played a role in the catastrophic chain of events last Monday night. The granting of parole to Khayre last November did not cause the horror, but simply located it in a specific time and place.

According to media reports, Khayre’s life in Australia began as a child refugee in the company of his grandparent. He had experienced a steep downhill trajectory in the last decade, muddied by drug addiction, multiple acts of criminality, and consequent alienation from his friends and community.

In 2013, retired High Court judge Ian Callinan made 23 recommendations to the Victorian government following the September 2012 murder of Jill Meagher by parolee Adrian Ernest Bayley. Almost all were accepted.

Since the Callinan report was received, the Victorian parliament has passed ten acts and amendments to legislation that have modified the parole system.

The changes include: better resourcing for the Parole Board; increasing the number of correctional staff and decreasing their caseloads; improved risk assessment tools; better information-sharing across agencies; better communications with victims; a second tier of review for parole decisions on serious offenders; making breach of parole a new offence.

It would be hard to imagine that much more could be done, although better liaison between intelligence agencies and parole boards is hard to argue against.

There is also a downside for any jurisdiction that takes a hardline approach. The longer people are held behind bars, the more likely it becomes that their grievances will grow.

Moreover, their contacts with other aggrieved prisoners will spread, while their associations with those who might moderate their warped zeal will be silenced. If we are serious about community engagement as a valuable tool in preventing radicalisation, we must acknowledge the limitations of long prison sentences.

There are other potential adverse consequences, too. A 2015 report by the Victorian Ombudsman found that the recent increase in prisoner numbers – due in part to changes in parole – had reduced access to programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

Research from New South Wales has demonstrated that more than seven out of ten parolees do not commit any further offences while on parole. Only 7% of parolees commit a violent offence. In addition, offenders supervised on parole are less likely to offend than comparable offenders who were not supervised.

Finally, it has been shown that keeping people in prison past a certain point is more likely to cause crime than prevent it. Indeed, every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar that is not spent on the very things that prevent crime: housing, education, mental health, and drug treatments.

The word “parole” comes from the French term for a person who gives their word that they can be trusted to serve the last portion of their sentence beyond prison walls.

Determining who can be trusted, and who cannot, is a task that even those who profess the most informed foresight and wisdom cannot easily master. All we can hope for is that increased information-sharing between federal and state/territory intelligence agencies and justice operatives will improve decision-making.

One strategy might be to give all convicted persons who have ever espoused an extremist view longer sentences, with no chance of parole. But we need to accept, for the above reasons, that such a policy is not the panacea that we are so desperately seeking.

In any event, a recent survey of 1,200 Australians found that 68% of them agreed that society has an obligation to assist a person’s re-entry into the community following a prison sentence. And 82% agreed that we should:

… spend more money funding effective prison-based education and treatment programs so that people leaving prisons do not commit new offences.

In the light of recent events, we could be excused for demanding something more than the status quo. But that something needs to be able to deliver the outcome desired. On current evidence, uncompromising national parole laws would not achieve that.

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