Prison is not the answer but perhaps justice reinvestment is.
As each week passes, Australia moves ever closer to the unwanted prize for leading the world in locking up its Indigenous population, says Gino Vumbaca, Member of Just Reinvest NSW’s Executive Committee.
This might come as a shock to some, given the US and China lead the world in absolute numbers of people in prison, but visit any prison in Australia and the one thing that will strike you is the number of Indigenous faces you see. Visit a women’s prison and it’s more obvious; even more so at juvenile centres. Proportionally, our Indigenous prison population just continues to grow, with Indigenous women being the fastest growing group within our prisons.
None of this, however, stops the incessant assertions from shock jocks and tabloids promoting prison as the answer to seemingly every problem we have. Then there are the regular complaints of judges being out of step with community attitudes for not imposing even longer sentences. At various times, there are also calls for mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes. Against this backdrop, it is difficult for governments to explain the need to adopt smarter approaches that are far more effective and not simply based on retribution and revenge.
Putting more people, especially young people, in prison is not the answer to making communities safer. Imprisonment can have some deterrent effect, but human nature and circumstances often override such an effect and the long-term damage from time in prison is well known. Research has demonstrated that people who come into contact with the criminal justice system are highly likely to experience multiple and severe social and economic disadvantages.
The recent Productivity Commission report on prisons uncovers the scale of the problems.
The cost to Australian taxpayers each year for a prison system housing more than 32,000 people runs to almost $3 billion – this, of course, does not include the hundreds of millions spent on building prisons each year. The latest prison in Darwin is estimated to have cost more than $1 billion to build. And, given that Australian prisons are running at more than 104 per cent of actual capacity, the drain on the public purse for capital expenditure is set to increase.
For Indigenous people, the numbers are horrific. On any given day, 2.3 per cent of the Indigenous population is in prison, with a further 2.9 per cent in community corrections – this doesn’t include those on probation or parole, making the number of Indigenous people within the wider justice system much higher. In comparison, about 0.35 per cent of non-Indigenous people are in prison or community corrections.
Apart from the obvious cost implications for taxpayers, it is worth remembering that prisons are violent places where more than 10 per cent of prisoners report being assaulted – and much more goes unreported. Prisoners in NSW spend upwards of 16 hours a day locked in small cells to save money and the reoffending rate exceeds 50 per cent. It is almost a certainty that a juvenile detainee will also end up spending time in an adult prison at some stage. Forget any claims of prison being a place of rehabilitation. It is simply the wrong place and the wrong time for most prisoners.
So, the billions of dollars we invest each year just serve to make the problem worse for the individual and, crucially, that means a less safe community, as the tens of thousands of people churn through this dysfunctional and violent system back into the community.
Our struggle is to have the courage to face this failure and put a more pragmatic and effective solution in place. The answer for many is justice reinvestment.
Justice reinvestment aims to address the underlying causes of crime and improve the lives of both individuals and communities. It uses data to identify communities with a high concentration of offenders and assess the particular problems facing those communities. The redirection of funds into early intervention, crime prevention and diversionary programs creates savings in the criminal justice system that can be tracked and reinvested. When implemented properly, justice reinvestment has the ability to reduce crime, offer positive opportunities to young people and save money.
Justice reinvestment provides communities with the power and resources to support people tackling challenging circumstances through long-term measures tailored to their local needs. In effect, it addresses the underlying drivers of many crimes.
We know the conventional wisdom in politics is that the public want their politicians to be tough on crime, but Australians are also pragmatic and know when something is broken it is time to fix it. The NSW election provides such an opportunity for an incoming government to rethink a system that is an expensive failure and unfairly punishes far too many first Australians.
Gino Vumbaca is a member of Just Reinvest NSW.