Deconstructing imprisonment: Exploring sentencing discourses in the District Court of New South Wales

Published date01 April 2024
AuthorSally Taylor
Date01 April 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Criminology & Criminal Justice
2024, Vol. 24(2) 379 –394
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/17488958221117922
Deconstructing imprisonment:
Exploring sentencing
discourses in the District
Court of New South Wales
Sally Taylor
Independent Researcher
In Australia, imprisonment remains a popular form of crime control amidst rising costs in prison
expenditure and high rates of prison return. While changes to crime rates and to policing policy
have impacted the growing prisoner population in recent years, less is known about the language
underpinning the courts’ decision to imprison. This article presents the results of a critical
discourse analysis on 124 sentencing remarks on imprisonment from the District Court of New
South Wales in 2017. Three discourses were identified in the texts as facilitating the justification
of a prison sentence: the discourse of control, the discourse of safety and the discourse of duty.
These findings highlight the ways in which the prison is constructed and legitimated in the courts,
which has implications not only for sentencing policy and practice but also for conceptions and
applications of justice more broadly.
Critical discourse analysis, imprisonment, justifications of imprisonment, penal abolition,
punishment, sentencing discourse
More people are being incarcerated than ever before. Over 11.5 million people across
the globe are held in custody each day, with one third held in pre-trial detention along-
side a growing proportion of women and children (Penal Reform International, 2022).
With over 2 million prisoners in the United States, it is unsurprising that the trend of
Corresponding author:
Sally Taylor, Independent Researcher, New South Wales, Australia.
1117922CRJ0010.1177/17488958221117922Criminology & Criminal JusticeTaylor
380 Criminology & Criminal Justice 24(2)
hyperincarceration is reaching less populated Western Anglophone countries such as
Australia (World Prison Brief, 2022). Australia reached its highest-ever recorded num-
ber of prisoners in March 2020 at 44,159, almost double its number 10 years prior
(Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2010, 2022). Rather than reflecting changes in
penal policy, increases in imprisonment rates over the last two decades have been
largely attributed to changes in policing policy and to certain types of crime (Weatherburn,
2018, 2020). The imposition of various COVID-19 government restrictions since 2020
has likely had an impact on the prisoner population which reached its lowest level
(40,330) since 2016 in March 2022 (ABS, 2022).
The state of New South Wales (NSW) houses 30% of Australia’s prisoners (12,317),
the highest number in the country including those who are unsentenced (4,729) and
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (3,413) (ABS, 2022). Of the $4.19 billion spent on
prisons in Australia during 2020–2021, NSW had the highest recurrent expenditure1
($1.4 million of the total national figure of $4.4 million) and 49 of the 115 national cor-
rectional facilities were operating in this jurisdiction (Steering Committee for the Review
of Government Service Provision (SCRGSP), 2022). To accommodate for growing pris-
oner numbers, $3.8 billion was allocated by the NSW Government in 2016 to build more
prisons under the Better Prisons program, and recent initiatives to reduce reoffending2
have highlighted the increased reliance on this institution not only to house offenders but
to address offending behaviour (Audit Office of New South Wales (NSW), 2019; New
South Wales (NSW) Government, 2022).
Despite this prioritisation of funds to the prison system, studies in Australia and
elsewhere have consistently found that at least for some offences and when controlling
for relevant variables, imprisonment does not reduce recidivism but increases its likeli-
hood (Cid, 2009; Cullen et al., 2011; Duwe and Clark, 2017; Gelb et al., 2013; Mears
et al., 2016; Queensland Productivity Commission (QPC), 2019; Rahman and
Weatherburn, 2021; Weatherburn, 2010; Wermink et al., 2010). In NSW, length of
prison sentence has shown to be an important factor in determining rates of reoffend-
ing when compared with non-custodial sentences (see Trevena and Poynton, 2016;
Trevena and Weatherburn, 2015; Wang and Poynton, 2017). Rehabilitation programs
in Australian prisons have also shown to be largely ineffective to reduce reoffending3
and prisoner attitudes to rehabilitation are generally apathetic or negative (Day, 2020;
Goulding, 2007; Halsey, 2007). This evidence may help to explain the high rate of
reconviction among ex-prisoners in NSW (Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research
(BOCSAR), 2021).
The overwhelming majority of Australian prisoners have complex support needs and
come from disadvantaged backgrounds with histories of family dysfunction, homelessness,
unemployment, educational disadvantage, disability, substance abuse, poor health, mental
illness, abuse, and neglect (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 2022; Baldry
et al., 2018). Ex-prisoners have reported several challenges after release including inade-
quate preparation for adjusting to life outside prison, a heightened risk of substance abuse,
and a lack of support in accessing services, finding appropriate housing, attaining employ-
ment, and reconnecting with family (Doyle et al., 2020, 2022; Hardcastle et al., 2018;
Schwartz et al., 2020). Furthermore, research in Australia and the United Kingdom indicates
that experiences of prison and sentence severity are largely shaped by the prison

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