Our justice system is completely broken
Our justice system is broken. The way we deal with crime simply isn’t working any more.
Over the last 30 years, the number of Australians in prison has tripled. It has grown year on year four times faster than the Australian population.
This is unsustainable and is placing extraordinary strain on Justice Department budgets around the country. In fact, we now spend $3 billion dollars a year keeping people in prison.
Further systemic failures have produced a ‘revolving door’ phenomenon, where far too many of those released from prison are jailed again for new crimes. As Deborah Erwin said earlier this week, the longer people stay in jail, the more likely they are to commit another crime.
A Senate Inquiry has been launched this week to look at alternatives to the current system, particularly an approach known as Justice Reinvestment.
Justice Reinvestment is about addressing the underlying causes of crime and improving rehabilitation structures. Prevention and “cure”, if you will. It involves identifying ‘high stakes’ communities where crime is most likely to occur and addressing disadvantage where it begins.
If anything close to “soft on crime” is springing to your mind, let me add that Justice Reinvestment has the support of many Republicans in the United States. Texan Republicans, no less, who are hardly known for being soft on anything.
The first reason for this is that Justice Reinvestment saves money. Lots of it.
Prisons will always be needed for serious and dangerous offenders, but prisons are also one of the most expensive ways to address less serious crime.
In Australia, it costs $221 per person per day to keep someone in prison.
Spending on alternatives to prison and community services like legal centres drastically reduces future spending, at a rate as high as 1 to 100. Spending $1 today to save $100 down the track should be irresistible to anyone calling themselves a fiscal conservative.
The second reason for bipartisan support in areas of the United States is that Justice Reinvestment works.
Texas’s prison population has stopped growing for the first time in decades and urban crime rates are declining since Justice Reinvestment strategies were adopted in 2007.
In Kansas, the number of prisoners is falling, as are parole breaches and reconviction rates. It has scrapped plans for a new prison, saving $80 million.
At the 2011 National Summit on Justice Reinvestment and Public Safety, the following words were spoken:
“Americans have made it clear they want a correctional system that holds offenders accountable and keeps communities safe. But they also want and deserve a system that makes the most of their tax dollars — especially in perilous economic times, when public funds are scarce and there are compelling, competing needs such as education and health care that must be addressed.”
The parallels with Australia are clear and I could not agree more. This is a sensible, evidence-based approach to improving public safety.
In Australia, we also need to pay particular attention to the over-representation of Indigenous people, and particularly youth, in our justice system.
Indigenous adults make up 2 per cent of the population, but 27 per cent of those in prison. When it comes to youth, two in every five young people under justice supervision are Indigenous and they are 24 times more likely to be put in jail.
With an imprisonment rate of 2256 per 100,000, Indigenous people are a candidate for the most heavily imprisoned people groups in the world.
This is a national shame. It is no wonder groups representing Indigenous Australians are so keen for a Justice Reinvestment approach.
It is time for Australia to take a good hard look at the way we are addressing crime in our community. We have pursued the current ‘mass imprisonment’ strategy for decades, but it would be hard to say it has created safer communities.
Our system is flawed. It is broken. But there is a tried and tested solution staring us in the face.
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