As highlighted in a number of reports, most recently the NSW crime statistics from BOSCAR – crime is falling but the focus on tough law and order policies is swelling the prison population beyond its capacity.
A lot of people will shrug their shoulders and honestly wonder what the fuss is about. People who commit crimes go to prison and this makes the community safer. What they fail to consider is the very real downside: a bigger drain on the public purse and a bad social outcome.
Make no mistake, the rate of growth in prison numbers in NSW and Victoria, as well Queensland and other states are going to cost all of us a lot of money. When leaders declare themselves ‘infrastructure premiers’ I don’t think they or anyone else thought they meant as prison builders. But at $300 million for each new prison there is a need for Australia to build at least one prison somewhere each year to cope with the growth. In the world of capital investment, choices are made and whenever we spend taxpayer dollars on a prison we forego investment in another area. In California, and many other states in the USA, this has meant prison investments outstripping any other capital investments and more being spent on prisons than higher education as a consequence. No-one could really suggest that this is the best option for our tax dollars.
It’s important to understand the point in the BOCSAR figures on crime that current prison number increases in NSW are not due to a surge of crime. This is the case for other states as well. What drives the increase is a mix of policing enforcement, and sentencing and parole policies.
We need to move beyond discussion on where to build a prison each time we reach capacity as this just means lost infrastructure opportunities. There is an old truism about prisons: if you build them, you will fill them. Just ask the ACT government who reached capacity in their first and only prison well before the projections predicted.
Let’s be clear: there are people who need to be separated from society, but we need to look at who ends up in prison and why. Only then can we start to change this costly game where only the prison industry companies win. And when we do look at who fills our prisons we see the over representation of Aboriginal people, people with drug problems, people with disabilities, the mentally ill and the homeless. The common factor apart from poverty and limited opportunities is the availability of more effective and much more inexpensive responses than prison.
Because that is the other thing we know: for these people prison is not an effective tool in reducing reoffending. What prisons offer are literally tens of thousands of people churning through the system each year, high reoffending rates, unprepared release back into the community and poor impacts on community safety.
If we want a safer community, we need to make much smarter investment choices and prioritise crime prevention. What does work is properly funded, evidence-based programs. Yet these programs receive little in comparison to what governments spend on the prison option. Even less is spent on programs that can reduce the likelihood of young people entering a life in the police, court and prison revolving door. It sucks out enormous amounts from the public purse over a lifetime.
If you ever wondered how law and order and election cycle dysfunction works just look at Victoria and the response to methamphetamines (ice). A well-considered Parliamentary Report from Victoria highlights the importance of prevention, education and treatment in any response yet the political answers, concerned about looking ‘soft’ in the face of ongoing media reports of crisis, are policies overwhelmingly geared towards law enforcement with treatment and prevention given the crumbs.
We need to start looking at the problem from a different angle, and that means addressing the underlying causes of crime and improving outcomes for both individuals and communities. This is what justice reinvestment seeks to do. It is about providing individuals, their families and communities better opportunities. Justice reinvestment realigns taxpayers’ dollars by diverting some of the funds spent on incarceration to communities where there is a high concentration of offenders. The money that would have been spent on the criminal justice system is reinvested into education, treatment and other programs and services that address the causes of crime. When implemented properly, justice reinvestment benefits entire communities, not just individuals.
Justice reinvestment is not a panacea but it is a much wiser investment than a new prison every year from a law and order auction every election.
Written by Sarah Hopkins and Gino Vumbaca, Executive Members of Just Reinvest NSW
Image gratefully sourced from http://bit.ly/20Pn6va