Monday, January 16, 2012

When is a crime not a crime? When it's a breach of bail

The Sunday Telegraph spectacularly announced yesterday that the Crime rate on bail is soaring in NSW according to new data.”
Except, it is not.
The data being referred to is the data freely-available on the website of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR).  What that data shows, in summary, is that the number of breach of bail conditions has increased from 26,278 in the 12 month period to September 2010 up to 31,002 in the 12 month period to September 2011.
There are numerous problems with the article, beginning with the headline.  The statistics do not record an increase in the rate of crime committed by persons who are on bail.  They record an increase in the number of breaches of bail conditions that have occurred.  The first point to note is that breaching a bail condition is not a crime.  The only relevant offence is failing to appear in accordance with a bail undertaking. Breaching a bail condition renders you liable to arrest, but only for the purposes of bringing you before the court for reconsideration of your bail status. And so an increase in the number of breach of bail conditions says nothing about an increase in crime.
Still less does it say anything about an increase in the crime rate…a change in the rate could only be determined by knowing how many people were on bail during the relevant periods being compared, a matter about which the article provides data for person subject to bail conditions at the time their matter was finalized, and then only for the 2010 year. It is far from clear that even that number is a relevant one for the purposes of determining an increase in the rate (the relevant number would seem to be the number of people subject to a bail condition at any time during the relevant 12 month period).
But I digress: the headline is hopelessly misleading.
The article is worse.
The first paragraph asserts that “Not even the threat of lengthy jail time is enough to deter them with the number of breaches soaring by almost 20 per cent in the past 24 months.” As noted above, breaching bail conditions is not a crime, and so there is no “lengthy jail [sic – read “gaol”] time” that poses a threat.  At worst the existing bail could be revoked and further bail refused.  Sensationalism is the only excuse for writing “almost 20%” instead of just saying “18%”.  Somewhat ironically, the increase that was recorded is over a 12 month period, not a 24 month period as reported…surely that’s MUCH more spectacular.  A course in statistics would pay handsomely for Sunday Telegraph journalists.
The second paragraph suffers from an odious failure to identify the so-called experts who proffered a view on the reason for the increase in breaches of bail conditions. If it is Don Weatherburn, subsequently referred to in the article, then why not say so.  And if there are others (implied by the use of the plural) who are they and how are they qualified to comment?  Is it the “spokesman for acting NSW Attorney-General Chris Hartcher” later referred to?
The third paragraph repeats the sins of the headline in even more egregious fashion,   which makes it difficult to blame the sub-editor. It is simply lazy, ill-researched reporting.  It is internally inconsistent, referring initially to a surge in “breach of bail offences”, but then to the number of “charges laid against offenders who committed further crimes while on bail.” It bears repeating that both these statements are wrong: there is no offence for breaching bail; and the statistics say nothing about the commission of “further crimes” while on bail.
The fourth paragraph repeats the sin of referring to “charges” for “breach of bail offences”.
The sixth paragraph asserts: “The offences committed on bail ranged from serious violent crimes to small breaches, including not reporting to police at a designated time or breaking a court ordered curfew.”  This is curious, because the statistics available on the website don’t show that at all, and BOCSAR informs me that this data is provided by the NSW Police and from that data it is not possible “to characterise the nature of these breach of bail incidents nor whether they were committed in conjunction with a further offence.”
Then, at long last, we get an explanation of the increase from Don Weatherburn, crime statistics guru.  What is interesting about this explanation for the increase in the statistic is that it is not related to an increase in criminality, or the wrong people being given bail…it is simply a result of changes to the application of the law by Courts which result in a larger number of people having conditions attached to their bail, and changes to the policing of bail conditions. 
Who’d have thought!!!

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