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Youth Justice Reinvestment: Invest in communities, not prisons      Analysis

Youth Justice Reinvestment: Invest in communities, not prisons     

Tiffany Overall, Convenor of Smart Justice for Young People, writes on how trialling a justice reinvestment approach could help tackle underlying social causes of youth crime. This piece was first published on the Croakey blog as part of their #JustJustice series.

Justice reinvestment is a promising strategy to help tackle the underlying social causes of youth crime, and should be trialled in Victoria.

It also has the potential to help build stronger communities, reduce crime and relieve pressure on the soaring Corrections’ budget.

At the Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice forum in June, panel members discussed some key features of justice reinvestment, some international experiences and a couple of innovative projects in NSW that hold some lessons for Victoria.

The pressing need to explore justice reinvestment in Victorian is largely driven by prison overcrowding (prisoner numbers up 42% since 2004), disproportionately high percentage of Aboriginal people making up the youth justice and adult prison populations, record high re-offending rates of prisoners at 40%, and the rocketing expenditure (over $1 billion last year).

But it is also driven by the need to address poverty and disadvantage as an underlying cause of crime and imprisonment, and a need to focus on early intervention programs particularly for at-risk young people, as an extremely cost effective way to reduce crime.

Young people getting caught up in the criminal justice system are some of Victoria’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable. For example, about a quarter of children on youth justice orders or in remand in 2010 came from between 2 and 3% of Victoria’s poorer postcodes, and around 4 out of 5 children with youth justice orders are known to child protection.

Adopting a justice reinvestment approach means investing in disadvantaged communities – not prisons – to develop and implement local solutions addressing economic and social determinants and risk factors behind youth offending. It will help reduce the number of children at risk of becoming adult offenders or prisoners.

Victoria has much to learn from other jurisdictions, particularly the United States (US) and other Australian states and territories, especially NSW, which are further advanced in their exploration of and implementation of justice reinvestment approaches.

Panellist, Melanie Schwartz, Chief Investigator, of the Australian Justice Reinvestment Project shared her observations of how justice reinvestment has played out in the US. There are currently 30 states in the United States pursuing justice reinvestment at the state level, and at least 18 counties in six states undertaking justice reinvestment at the local level

Despite the promise of a place-based approach with strong community engagement, the US experience has become more focused on statewide criminal justice reforms and investment into community corrections, such as probation and parole services.

Melanie felt the lesson for Victoria is to adopt a flexible approach and make sure any justice reinvestment measures are adapted to the realities of Victoria.

Panellists agreed that the underlying power of justice reinvestment is in it being a place-based approach that invests in local communities sourcing their own answers and building their capacity to be enablers of change and to create safer communities.

Another panel member, Ben Schokman of the Human Rights Law Centre, reinforced the importance of supporting and empowering local communities to design and implement their own social programs for change, and gave some inspiring international case studies.

Even without formal justice reinvestment policy, we are seeing some very exciting initiatives across Australia at the community level.

The Bourke Justice Reinvestment Project is an innovative example of a community mobilising around a great need for change, taking control and driving positive change. Bourke is a small remote town in far western New South Wales with a population of nearly 3,000 people. It has a young population, high levels of unemployment and disengagement from education, and high imprisonment rates. Thirty per cent of the population are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Of the 223 young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Bourke, 47 (10 to 24 year olds) were on remand or had been sentenced, representing half of the youth prison population. Annually this detention costs over $2 million.

Kerry Graham, of Just Reinvest NSW, explained how Aboriginal leaders of Bourke responded to these issues, announcing their interest in participating in a trial. Since 2012 they have been working with the Bourke Aboriginal Community Working Party (BAWP) to tackle problems around offending and incarceration, while at the same time creating alternate pathways for young people.

Kerry said a key learning was the importance of taking time to build trusted relations between participants. Bourke has used a collective impact model to guide the project, with diverse organisations from different sectors committing to a common agenda to solve their social problems through a coordinated joint plan of action.

Researchers from the Australian National University, led by Dr Jill Guthrie, are conducting an innovative community research study in Cowra, NSW to evaluate the potential use of a justice reinvestment approach to addressing crime, and particularly the imprisonment of the town’s young people.

Cowra has a population of 10,000, and has been described as an ideal case study site due to its stable population and middle range crime profile.

This study is a conversation with the town to explore:

  • what are the conditions, the understandings, the agreements that would need to be in place in order to return those young people who are in detention centres, to keep those young people who are at risk of incarceration from coming into contact with the criminal justice system, and
  • what is it in town that works for those young people not at risk of incarceration?

Smart Justice for Young People  is calling on the Victorian Government to develop a state-wide strategy for a justice reinvestment policy and to commit to trialling and evaluating justice reinvestment in selected communities.

This piece first appeared on Croakey blog as part of their #JustJustice series, which is sponsored by Jesuit Social Services, and Frank Meany of One Vision.