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Justice Reinvestment no ‘panacea’ to prison

Sara Hudson | 01 February 2013

sara-hudsonThe Australian Senate is conducting an inquiry into the value of a Justice Reinvestment approach in Australia with a particular focus on Aboriginal people in prison. However, the assumption underpinning Justice Reinvestment—that the prison system is a failure—ignores the fact that many offenders are in prison for a reason. Prisons serve a purpose and help protect society by taking out of circulation violent and repeat offenders.

Justice Reinvestment is a concept from the United States which proposes redirecting money spent on prisons into programs to address the underlying causes of offending in communities with high levels of incarceration.

Advocates of a Justice Reinvestment approach use the high costs associated with incarceration to argue for more non-custodial sentences such as diversion. Many people believe Aboriginal people are unfairly targeted by police and arrested for relatively minor ‘social nuisance’ offences, but this ignores the fact that a large proportion (50 per cent) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are in jail for serious crimes (homicide, assault and sex offences).

Rather than just asking why Indigenous people are over-represented in Australia’s prisons, we also need to ask why certain Indigenous Australians are committing such serious crimes.

The National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee estimates alcohol is a factor in up to 90 per cent of all Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system: 87 per cent of all Indigenous intimate partner homicides are alcohol related, and 63.8 per cent of Indigenous adult offenders report drinking alcohol before being arrested and placed in police custody.

Unemployed Indigenous people are also 20 times more likely to offend and end up in prison than employed Indigenous people.

A 2012 study in Queensland found the most chronic and costly offenders were from remote and very remote locations where there is appalling education and few employment options. In the remote community of Yuendumu in the Northern Territory, one out of every six residents (93 people from a total population of 587) is in prison.

To address the underlying causes of Indigenous offending, we need to focus on education and employment, and not be waylaid into thinking the answer lies with yet more ‘culturally appropriate’ or ‘Indigenous distinct’ programs. Worryingly, some supporters of Justice Reinvestment are already arguing for ‘culturally appropriate’ initiatives such as Indigenous healing centres.

Justice Reinvestment supporters talk as if offenders are victims of the criminal justice system, forgetting the actual real victims, and their right to some sort of redress. Diversion programs to provide employment and training for young offenders may be worthwhile but waiting till someone offends to provide education and employment training is too late. Improving educational outcomes should not be reliant on the diversion of funds from prison services but a basic right that states and territories should be covering in their education budgets.

Sara Hudson is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of the report Panacea to Prison? Justice Reinvestment in Indigenous Communities released on 31 January 2013.