AFTER a decade of steadily swelling, the state’s prisoner population has begun to decline because of lower crime rates, fewer prison sentences and shorter jail terms, the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research has found.
Prisoner numbers dropped nearly 7per cent between July 2009 and December 2011, from 10,322 to 9626 – a reduction of 696 inmates.
It reverses the trend between January 1998 and July 2009 when the number of people in the state’s jails ballooned by 65per cent.
The surprise drop, which could have implications for a new wing at Cessnock Jail, has been attributed to a fall in prisoners for assault, traffic or motor vehicle offences, theft and break and enter.
That in turn was found to be the result of a fall in the number of convicted offenders and the number of those given a jail sentence.
The length of jail terms was also down for some offences, the bureau found.
The average sentence length fell for assault, break and enter and traffic offences.
Bureau director Don Weatherburn said it was not entirely clear at this stage why the courts were less likely to imprison some offenders or why they were going to jail for less time.
‘‘It could be due to a reduction in the seriousness of some of the offences or offenders coming before the courts or it could be in recognition that most categories of crime are now under control,’’ Dr Weatherburn said.
NSW has the third-highest rate of imprisonment in Australia, behind the Northern Territory and Western Australia, yesterday’s report said.
Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin told a budget estimates hearing last month that the construction of a new maximum security wing at Cessnock Jail was finished but would need to undergo security audits.
There was no hurry to open the wing, he said.
A Corrective Services NSW spokesman said the testing was continuing.
‘‘However, the commissioner has made it clear that given the current prison population there is no pressure to rush the opening,’’ the spokesman said.