Zero tolerance equals zero progress
The Baillieu Government’s rush to hastily imprison vulnerable youths fails to consider the cost of getting “tough” on crime and the real needs of the community.
The Age reported this week the building and maintenance of a new prison in Victoria will cost taxpayers more than $1.1 billion over 25 years, and according to a government insider, “isn’t value for money”.
And there were further reports today that there is a strong push from the Justice Department to build a new men’s prison which would become Victoria’s largest. But the debate shouldn’t just be about the nitty-gritty of construction contracts.
The Baillieu Government seems set to turn back the clock and embark on policies that go against all the research that shows the best way to reduce crime rates in the long-term is through early intervention and support.
This can be the difference between keeping a young person out of trouble and steering them towards education and work, and the start of a lifetime of re-offending and institutionalisation.
Victoria’s newest prison comes amid reports that the state’s existing facilities are stretched to breaking point, with overcrowding adding to the risk of violence to inmates and staff. And this situation is set to worsen due to a likely surge under the Baillieu Government’s tough law and order agenda.
The Baillieu Government is rolling out a string of old-fashioned law and order policies, which give little consideration to contemporary research and thinking. Glib phrases like “zero tolerance” have replaced expertise and balance.
The introduction of bail reform, the abolition of home detention and suspended sentences are all set to worsen an overcrowded prison system and tighten the screws on young people who are crying out for help.
The naivety of a simplistic “more police and more jails” approach demonstrates a will to chase the political gain at the cost of the best policy when it comes to young offenders.
We know that two out of every three young people who have been in custody re-offend while 80 per cent of young people involved in a youth Group Conference program have not reoffended within two years. We also know that every person kept out of custody for a year saves the tax payer $88,000.
The savings add up when you consider Jesuit Social Services works with around 500 young people each year through programs such as intensive case management for youths on community-based supervision orders and group conferencing.
These programs are a fraction of the cost and they deliver results. They help young people get back on the right track instead of getting trapped in a cycle of reoffending.
Not only are the Baillieu Government’s policies counterproductive, they appear to be motivated by the highly unreliable “shock jock test”’ of community expectation that revels in exaggeration and judgement of young people as ‘the problem’.
Listening to the loudest voices is not the same as listening to the community.
A recent report released by the Sentencing Advisory Council – the very agency being asked to draft mandatory sentencing conditions by the Government – found that “contrary to common myths and misconceptions about a punitive public, people are open to a policy of increasing the use of alternatives to prison”.
The Government has a responsibility to shape a justice system that reflects community attitude and its expectations about safety and justice. It also has a responsibility to base its policies on facts, not fear and myths.
It is judges, not politicians, who should be setting sentences. Under current laws, the judiciary has the ability to hand out a harsh sentence if the situation requires – just as it has the ability to take into consideration circumstances of the defendant along with the seriousness of the crime and its impact on the community.
Such judicial discretion will be undermined with legislation introducing minimum sentencing.
This current combination of politics and “shock jock” driven community polling has the potential to send Victoria backwards. We only have to look north to New South Wales to see that higher levels of detention do not reduce the crime rate.
Despite having about a third of the nation’s population, NSW has half of Australia’s prison population, a prison rate double that of Victoria. According to the Crime and Justice Reform Committee, the crime rates in the two states are the same.
So while NSW looks to Victoria to reduce its crime and imprisonment rates, the Baillieu Government is focused on winding back the Victorian system, filling up our jails and driving up crime rates all because its election platform sounds good to shock jocks.
The losers from this will not just be young and vulnerable Victorians but the general community, who will be dealing with the repercussions of ill-thought policies for years to come.
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