Effectiveness of Intermediate Sanctions in NSW Local Courts: A Natural Experiment

David Tait, University of Canberra

Are offenders given community work or probation less likely to re-offend than offenders sentenced to prison? Random allocation of offenders to prison and other penalties raises numerous ethical and logistical problems. This study uses a natural or indirect experiment, taking advantage of the random allocation of cases to magistrates in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales. Cohorts of identical offenders received a different mix of prison, community work, probation, fines and good behavior bonds. There was also some variability in re-offending between cohorts; comparing the two sets of distributions allows conclusions to be draswn about the impact of different sanctions. This study concludes that, for serious offenses like burglary and auto theft, there were small but significant reductions in re-offending amongst cohorts with higher proportions of intermediate sanctions. For the least serious offences, such as public order offences, there were significant reductions in re-offending amongst those receiving no formal penalty at all, compared to those being fined. Some magistrates are using their discretion to minimize penal pain, and thereby increase public safety.

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Updated 05/20/2006