” No matter which way you look at it, Indigenous imprisonment represents a national crisis. New approaches urgently are needed and the promising reports of the Bourke justice reinvestment trial offer a glimmer of hope.
Indigenous Australians represent 2.5 per cent of the population and 27 per cent of prisoners. About half of those behind bars are there for nonviolent offences, including driving offences, property offences and breaches of court orders.
But we know those who have spent significant time in jail have a far greater propensity for violent crime on release.”
Stuart Clark is president of the Law Council of Australia writing in The Australian
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In fact, 80 per cent of those released will return to prison at least once, and usually more than once. In many cases this will be for procedural offences, such as breach of parole. Many people who are in prison are being held on remand. In the case of youths in detention, most are on remand because in many cases no other options are available for at-risk children.
Putting people behind bars at the current rate is an economic and moral disaster.
Morally, the system fails on a number of levels. By the time a young indigenous person is imprisoned, it is usually at the end of a series of incidents or interactions with the justice system that have led to their imprisonment being inevitable.
Most indigenous perpetrators of crime are themselves victims of crime, as youths or as adults. The fastest growing cohort in Australian prisons are indigenous women, who are overwhelmingly victims of domestic violence.
We also know that the vast majority of those imprisoned suffer an intellectual, cognitive or sensory disability.
A system geared primarily towards imprisonment simply perpetuates the downward spiral.
The system also costs many billions of dollars and grows more costly each year.
It includes prisons, law enforcement, legal services, community services, lost tax income and a greater welfare burden (because former inmates cannot find employment). And these are just the costs we can measure.
In NSW, a new prison is being built to accommodate its burgeoning prison population. The Northern Territory opened a super prison in 2014 costing $1.8 billion.
However, politicians and governments need to answer a fundamental question: is the current approach to criminal justice working? All of the existing data suggests that it isn’t.
During the past 10 years, most categories of crime — including violent crime — have trended downwards. However, indigenous imprisonment has continued to rise dramatically.
This is why the significant early strides being made by the Maranguka justice reinvestment pilot project in Bourke offer such hope.
Maranguka is the first major Australian trial of justice reinvestment. First developed in the US, justice reinvestment is a data-driven approach that aims to reduce offending and imprisonment, and reinvest savings into strategies that reduce crime and improve public safety. Justice reinvestment sometimes has been dismissed as a simple push for reduced sentences. This fundamentally misunderstands its objectives.
It is about listening to communities about crime and community problems at the local level, and constructing solutions that deal with those problems at the source.
Those who viewed the ABC’s Four Corners on Monday will have seen many examples in action.
Problem: a significant proportion of the trouble in Bourke stemmed from driving offences — often, driving without a licence.
Reality: it became clear after speaking with members of the community that illegal driving was often the only form of driving familiar to local kids. Indigenous youths in Bourke don’t typically have family members with cars, so driving lessons are impractical.
Solution: reinvest resources to free driving lessons.
Result: today the number of people jailed for driving offences in Bourke is the lowest in a decade. This approach is simple, effective and much, much less costly.
Another Bourke example is the allocation of police resources to follow-up visits with the perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse. A day or two after a domestic violence call-out, a local officer is dispatched to check in.
In the three months police have been following this procedure there has not been a single case of domestic reoffending.
While our instinctive reaction to crime is to punish criminals, we need to consider whether society’s interests are best served by feeding an endless cycle of imprisonment and reoffending. Fortunately, there is evidence governments are starting to listen. Brad Hazzard MP, the former NSW attorney-general, has thrown his personal support behind the justice reinvestment trial in Bourke.
Malcolm Turnbull has said juvenile detention will be on the agenda at the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments, which creates an excellent opportunity for the heads of government to establish a national strategy to address imprisonment.
The commonwealth can show its immediate commitment to these initiatives by reversing cuts to indigenous legal services slated for July next year.
Stuart Clark is president of the Law Council of Australia.