Vanessa Goodwin MLC’s announcement (The Mercury, 1 February) that the Liberals will eliminate suspended sentences is the wrong answer to the wrong question. She argues that it is necessary to eliminate them because the public doesn’t understand them. Well, there’s much that I don’t understand about medicine, accounting, AFL and how cars work, but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of them.

The question that the shadow Attorney-General and corrections minister should ask is how can a Hodgman government instill in the public confidence in its ability to create a safer community. Eliminating suspended sentences will not achieve that.

It is odd that an experienced criminologist, someone trained in the scientific study of crime and justice, is promoting a policy that will not make Tasmania safer, will probably be unaffordable and which removes a long-established sentencing option that promotes rehabilitation. This policy announcement and other announcements about policing suggest that we are likely to experience a law and order auction prior to the election. This would be a tragedy for Tasmania.

The great strength of the liberal tradition lies in its Enlightenment values of rationalism, individual responsibility and freedom. But, ironically and paradoxically, liberal governments can be seduced by the politics of control, moral rigidity and distrust of diversity. This is evident in the Abbott government’s handling of many policy areas that seem to have been hijacked by the most reactionary members of the LNP coalition. Asylum seekers, welfare recipients, employees, indigenous Australians and the environment are being subjected to authoritarian and punitive policies that privilege the powerful and place greater controls over the disadvantaged and powerless.

Although the commonwealth does not have responsibility for the administration of justice in Tasmania, the state Liberal’s plan to eliminate suspended sentences suggests that the same authoritarian impulses will be unleashed should a Hodgman government be elected.

Many readers will probably say this is a good thing and most agree that those who have committed crimes should be punished. But, the overriding aim of the criminal justice system is to make society safe and here lies the risk of giving in to a simplistic and populist urge for revenge.

Wherever one looks around the world, harsh punishments and punitive prison systems do not make society safer or happier. Sure, we generally feel better if a criminal goes to prison, especially if they have committed a violent offence. But, the problem is what happens when they are released. Punitive justice systems create ex-prisoners who are more dangerous and more likely to reoffend.

The Tasmanian evidence

The evidence is here in Tasmania. The recently released Productivity Commission Report on Government Services provides data that demonstrates that Tasmania becomes a safer place when the prison system concentrates on rehabilitation and equips prisoners to address their problems and make better decisions.

Take reoffending. This is measured in the report as the percentage of prisoners who return to prison within two years of their release. Most years the rate has been about 36%. But in 2009-10 it reduced to less than 32%. In 2012-2013 reoffending leaped to 39%. So what was going on? I believe the drop in recidivism in 2009-10 (prisoners who were released during 2007-08) was a direct result of the Tasmania Prison Service’s introduction of a new prison operating model and a wide range of rehabilitation programs. This was a model based on the evidence about what works in reducing prison misconduct and reducing risk of reoffending. Unfortunately, the prison service retreated from the new model and returned to a punitive style of prison management and consequent increase in violence and prison disturbances. As expected, the recidivism rate worsened to the high levels reported for last year as the incompetent management documented by the 2011 Palmer inquiry became entrenched.

The Report on Government Services also reports on the incidence of prison assaults each year. In 2005-06, the year before the introduction of the new prison model, assault rates were the second highest in Australia. In 2007-08 they had fallen to the lowest in the country. This was a direct result of implementing evidence-based prison management instead of a punitive, battle of wills approach to managing prisoners that Tasmania had previously and then resumed. By the end of 2008-09 the rates of serious assaults by prisoners on prisoners and prisoners on officers were the highest in Australia.

Fortunately, the Prison Service appears to be restoring evidenced based approaches to prisoner management and rehabilitation, and there is no reason why Tasmania could not achieve a lower reoffending rate than it briefly achieved a few years ago. This is thanks largely to ex-minister Nick McKim MP’s leadership following the Palmer inquiry, and the generally high quality and professionalism of prison service staff. (Indeed, the stability that McKim has brought to the prison service is one of the most significant achievements of the Labor-Greens government.)

The problem for the Liberals is that so much of their policy approach seems to be founded on little more than hatred of the Greens. It would be a tragedy for Tasmania if the Liberals implemented a punitive justice system to differentiate themselves from the achievements of a Greens corrections minister, when, as the evidence suggests, punitive initiatives such as the proposed abolishing of suspended sentences will make Tasmania a more dangerous place.

A much better approach would be for all parties to avoid a law and order auction during the election and make a commitment to continue the evidence-based work being undertaken by the Department of Justice to make Tasmania a safer place.

John Cianchi has served in senior roles in corrective services in Tasmania and the ACT. He holds a PhD in sociology and a Master of criminology and corrections.