Tasmania’s prison population has remained stable through the COVID-19 pandemic whereas other states have seen a significant decline in inmate numbers.
Department of Justice figures show the monthly average prison population in Tasmania, excluding the Wilfred Lopes Centre, over the last six months has fluctuated between 660 and 680 prisoners.
The average population was 661 in February, 680 in March, 676 in April, 663 in May, 660 in June and 668 in July.
But prison populations in NSW and Victoria have seen a decline in inmate numbers over the pandemic period.
In NSW, data up to June 30 released by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research showed over eight weeks from mid-March to May 10 the prison population decreased by 10.7 per cent.
The decrease in remand entries was attributed to a dip in the number of charges laid by police, more favourable bail decisions by both police and courts, and an increase in people released from remand to wait for their court case in the community.
The sentenced prisoner population also declined after court hearings were reduced.
Similarly in Victoria, monthly data released by Corrections Victoria showed the total prison population decreased from 8142 on February 29 to 7151 on June 30, a 12.9 per cent decrease.
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Prisoners Legal Service Tasmania chairman Greg Barns he understood a combination of factors had led to the decline in prisoner numbers in NSW and Victoria.
“In other jurisdictions such as Victoria, bail is being granted because courts are taking into account the risk of COVID,” Mr Barns said.
“In Tasmania this has been the case, certainly anecdotally we are aware of that happening.
“There are also less trials taking place so sentencing of individuals to prison is at a lower level.”
Mr Barns said the fact prisoner numbers in Tasmania had not increased was a good sign but he renewed his call for the government to consider releasing older prisoners who were at a higher risk should the contract COVID-19.
“Of course if COVID does enter the prison, as overseas experience tells us, it is hard to control,” he said.
A government spokesperson said overall the Tasmanian Prison Service was currently operating below capacity and it had recorded the lowest utilisation rate of all jurisdictions in the latest Productivity Commission figures.
When asked if the state had considered alternative methods of sentencing during COVID-19, the spokesperson said decisions about the length of time that a person is required to serve in prison were reserved for the courts.
“Both the Supreme and the Magistrates Court provide an essential service under the national cabinet’s COVID-19 guidelines, and have been able to adjust quickly and appropriately to accommodate the impact of the coronavirus on court proceedings, to ensure that access to justice continues to be maintained during the pandemic subject to social distancing and other requirements,” the spokesperson said.