It is time for Victoria to pursue a new approach to reducing crime in the community that addresses the reasons people offend and slows the rapidly increasing spending on prisons. VCOSS’ State Budget Submission 2015-16 Building a Victoria without poverty calls for the adoption of justice reinvestment strategies that redirect funding from policies that increase the prison population towards community initiatives that target the causes of crime.
Governments have tried the ‘tough on crime’ approach. The Victorian prison population has grown more than 40 per cent over the last five years. But despite delivering harsher sentences and locking more people up, we are not deterring people from crime. The Victorian crime rate has increased for the third year in a row, despite the growing prison population. More than a third of people in prison now will end up returning and more than half of current prisoners have already served a prison sentence as an adult.
Victoria’s prisoners are overwhelmingly people who have faced significant disadvantage in their lives. They generally have low levels of educational attainment, literacy and employment before entering prison. Many have histories of abuse, mental illness and substance use.
Building a Victoria without poverty outlines a range of strategies for addressing the causes of crime, reducing reoffending and diverting people from the justice system.
Divert young people from crime and expand bail support
The state government can steer young people on a path away from offending by funding a range of diversion programs at every point in the justice continuum, from first contact with the police through to attending court.
There is no legislative framework for youth diversion, despite pre-plea diversion for adults being enshrined in legislation since 2009. In addition to funded programs, legislation should be introduced to enshrine diversion for young people from first police contact through to court attendance.
The government can also prevent young people from being unnecessarily remanded by expanding bail support programs and ensuring access outside of business hours. About 23 per cent of young people in detention are currently un-sentenced and on remand. A significant number of these young people are remanded unnecessarily because they lack access to bail support services. Remand has a significant impact on young people’s lives, including disruption to everyday life and relationships, stigma and exposure to the risk of further criminalisation.
Increase post-prison release transition support
Post-release support services are under-resourced and struggle to meet demand. More flexible and longer term support, increased access to cultural and gender specific programs and better integration between transition and other support services would all improve outcomes for prisoners.
After release from prison, people are at high risk of unemployment, poverty, homelessness and ill-health. Forty three per cent of prisoners leave prison into homelessness. Post-release mortality is staggeringly high with one Queensland study finding people under the age of 25 were six times more likely to die in the year after release than the general population. This rose to 20 times more likely for young women.
Appropriate support in the post-release period helps reduce the risk of people reoffending or experiencing other crisis.
Fund a culturally specific residential diversion service for Aboriginal women
Aboriginal women are the fastest growing cohort of prisoners in Victoria. However they have limited access to diversionary services and supported accommodation post-release.
Most Aboriginal women in prison have histories marked by trauma, disadvantage and abuse. The majority are also mothers or primary carers of children. As a result of their mother’s imprisonment many children are forced into the child protection system, with potentially long-term impacts on their own wellbeing and connection to community.
Culturally specific programs have been shown to have better outcomes and stronger engagement from Aboriginal communities. The Victorian government can improve outcomes for Aboriginal women and help them maintain connection to family, community and culture by funding a stand-alone culturally safe diversionary service.
The Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in their report on Koori women in Aboriginal prisons, Unfinished business recommended that
A residential service, developed with a community-centred methodology, would act as the ‘hub’. It could be used by women on bail, those on Community Corrections Orders and post-release.
Expand prison health services
Prisons are one of the unhealthiest places to be in Victoria, with high rates of mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction and infectious diseases among prisoners. Left untreated, health issues can spread to the broader community once a prisoner is released. Unaddressed mental health or alcohol and drug issues can make reoffending more likely, reducing community safety and increasing costs to the community.
The state government can improve the health of prisoners and enhance community safety by expanding prison health services, especially alcohol and drug treatment services, mental health services and preventative programs targeting the transmission of blood borne viruses.