‘The overall prison population and over-representation of Aboriginal people in our prisons are increasing, while recently released statistics show that property and violent crime rates are falling. Something isn’t working.
‘Meanwhile, more and more taxpayer money is being poured into building new prisons. The NSW government, for example, has just announced plans to spend $3.8 billion on new prison beds across the next four years. This money could be better invested elsewhere — in early intervention and the prevention of crime. The outlook is particularly stark for Aboriginal young people.
‘The imprisonment rate for Aboriginal Australians has increased by an alarming 52 per cent in a decade, and more than half (59 per cent) of the young people in jail are Aboriginal, despite making up only 5 per cent of the population aged 10 to 17.
‘The latest figures show about $409 million is spent each year detaining young people in Australia.
‘This translates to more than $440,000 a year for each young person in detention on an average day.
‘We simply cannot afford to keep doing what we’re doing. The social and economic costs are too high. We need to come together and find a better way to address the problem — not just build more prisons. This “better way” is justice reinvestment, and I have been championing it since 2009.
‘Justice reinvestment is a smarter, data-driven approach to justice that finds alternative pathways for potential offenders and builds stronger communities by redirecting money that would be spent on prisons into community services and support.
‘It is tough on crime by preventing it from happening in the first place, and that is what ultimately reduces the number of victims of crime and builds safer communities.
‘The beauty of justice reinvestment is that it doesn’t require additional funding; it is just a more efficient and smarter use of money already allocated to corrections. It also ensures the community is involved and committed to taking ownership not only of the problem but also of the solutions.
‘Importantly, it has been proven to work. In the US, there are 30 justice reinvestment initiatives at the state level and another 18 at the county level that are reducing offending and saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
‘Next Monday, the ABC’s Four Corners program will report the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project in Bourke in northwest NSW. This is the first major justice reinvestment project in Australia and aims to provide a demonstration of how justice reinvestment can work here.
‘I visited Bourke a year ago and was impressed. What I saw had the potential to be replicated nationally and it was not complicated.
‘Simply, it was about the community working together to address a challenge that affects us all. Under the stewardship of Aboriginal leader Alistair Ferguson, and with the support of Just Reinvest NSW, key agencies on the ground, such as schools, police and health services, look at data and work with the Aboriginal community to identify what is causing people to commit crimes, be they minor or major.
‘In Bourke, some of the issues included too many young children with developmental problems, high rates of suspension from school, high levels of youth unemployment and the lack of a driver-licensing program.
‘They then devise interventions to address these issues. Paramount among them are appropriate education and health services and employment preparation and job creation. It was early days, but the key to their success is leadership, vision, empowerment, inclusion, respect and goodwill.
‘Across the next three years, economic modelling will demonstrate the savings from the initiatives identified by the community, and the case then will be put to government that long-term investment in justice reinvestment can reduce prison populations, save money and build stronger communities.
‘The time has come for a smarter approach. We need a dedicated focus on reducing incarceration from all levels of government, and done so in real partnership with communities. The time has come for a roll out of Justice Reinvestment initiatives across Australia.’
Tom Calma is chancellor of the University of Canberra; a champion of independent non-profit group Just Reinvest NSW and chief investigator for a justice reinvestment initiative in Cowra, NSW