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New data shows the COVID-19 pandemic forced a drop in prison populations across NSW in 2020 for the first time in many years.

According to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR)’s Quarterly Update, prison populations in NSW declined by 6 per cent in the 12 months leading up to September 2021. 

BOCSAR’s media release suggested the reduced prison numbers could be a result of courts being more inclined to release people on remand to wait for their court case – rather than move them into custody and risk seeding COVID-19 in the confines of a NSW prison. There was also a drop in remand receptions and in prison sentences as court appearances were deferred.

This is a larger relative drop than the numbers show, when considering the growth of the overall Australian population. Additionally, the number of youth offenders in prison has declined steadily over the past five years and is currently at historic lows, with just 190 people young people in custody in September 2020.

Lower crime rates in lockdown

The lower prison numbers could also be a flow-on effect from lower crime rates recorded during 2020. 

BOCSAR’s research shows most major offences such as property and violent crimes were lower in 2020 compared with historic norms. The biggest drop in crime rates corresponded with extreme “lockdown” measures introduced across the state in March and April. The report suggests people were not stealing, breaking and entering as much partly because mobility reduced, and more people were at home to protect their property for longer periods.

The only exception to the downward crimes trend was sexual assault, which rose 10 per cent year-on-year to September 2020. In a disturbing footnote, BOCSAR said this increase was primarily due to a rise in contemporary child sexual assault reports (not historic reports or adult victimisation).