Brett Wortman

Courts choke as NSW prisons hit 112% capacity

DISTRICT Courts are suffocating under backlogs costing NSW taxpayers $60 million a year and overcrowding prisons.

NSW Acting Auditor-General Tony Whitfield found the backlog grew to 1976 in June this year, with the number of cases older than 12 months almost doubling since 2011.

"In June 2015, the District Court estimated it had approximately 850 people on remand and awaiting trial," his audit report on law and order said.

"Based on a daily direct cost of $194 per person, this is estimated to be costing the state $164,900 per day or $60 million per year and contributing to prison overcrowding.

"According to the department, the delays have unintended consequences such as unnecessary hardship for victims and the accused, undermining confidence in the justice system, increasing case costs and the risk of witnesses forgetting evidence or not being contactable."

The extra strain is one the state's prison system is struggling to overcome, with jails 12% over capacity in 2014-15.

The audit found the average daily number of adult inmates was 11,011, while the system was designed to cater for only 9829 prisoners.

The figures had worsened by the end of last month, with inmate numbers reaching a new high of 12,161.

Mr Whitfield said the bed shortage affected running of the courts.

"For example, the department advises that over the weekend of October 31 to November 1, 2015, inmates held in NSW Police Force custody in the metropolitan area could not be brought before the courts for bail determination due to capacity issues," he said.

"In another example, a District Court judge referred to the lack of custodial accommodation (later disputed by the department) in early November 2015 as impacting his bail decision."

The State Government said the issues would be fixed once a new prison was built at Grafton, Parklea Correctional Centre was expanded by 400 beds and 430 other beds were added to the existing system.

But shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch said it had been getting "progressively worse since the Liberals came to government".

"Delays are good for nobody. It increases the anguish for victims and the uncertainty for the accused," he said.

"Delay means memories become less reliable when giving evidence and compromise the quality of justice."