New court orders diverting offenders from prison and into community-based supervision and treatment programs are more effective at reducing re-offending rates than prison sentences, according to groundbreaking new research.
The state's prisoner population is at a record high of 13,092 and the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) has said consistently there is "strong evidence that prison exerts little to no deterrent effect".
It will publish a report on Thursday showing intensive correction orders (ICOs) - which are an alternative to short prison sentences - have led to a drop of up to 31 per cent in the odds of a person re-offending, compared with offenders given a prison sentence of up to two years.
"If ICOs are more effective than short prison sentences in addressing underlying causes of offending behaviour and reducing recidivism rates, expanding their use would have a significant impact on the imprisonment growth rate in NSW," BOCSAR says in the report.
The orders, which include a number of mandatory conditions such as a minimum of 32 hours' community service a month, along with drug and alcohol testing, were introduced by the former NSW Labor government in 2010 and replaced periodic detention as an alternative to full-time custodial sentences.
The court may impose a range of other conditions, including around employment and electronic monitoring.
The orders can only be imposed in cases where the offender is at least 18 and a sentence of no more than two years would otherwise apply.
Corrective Services assesses the suitability of individual offenders for an ICO and those convicted of a range of specific sexual offences are excluded.
"NSW is currently experiencing unprecedented growth in imprisonment numbers," BOCSAR says in its report.
It said the rise in prison numbers and strong evidence that prison exerts little to no deterrent effect "has increased the urgency to find effective alternatives to imprisonment".
The research compared rates of re-conviction among 1,266 offenders given an ICO and 10,660 offenders given a prison sentence of less than two years.
"The two groups of offenders were matched on a wide range of factors, including age, gender, race, offence, prior criminal record and prior penalties," BOCSAR said.
The bureau found a reduction of between 11 per cent and 31 per cent in the odds of re-offending for an offender who received an ICO, compared with an offender who received a prison sentence of up to two years.
It said "even larger reductions in reoffending are observed when the prison group is restricted to offenders serving a fixed prison term of six months or less", who are released with no supervision or treatment.
"In this case the odds of reoffending among those receiving an ICO are between 25 and 43 per cent lower for offenders across all risk categories and between 33 and 35 per cent lower among offenders in the medium to high risk categories," it said.
Don Weatherburn, the executive director of BOCSAR, said the findings showed ICOs were a "cost-effective alternative to prison for offenders who would otherwise be sent to prison for short periods of time".