Justice reinvestment: an ounce of prevention?

Justice reinvestment: an ounce of prevention?

Can 'justice reinvestment' help reduce incarceration rates?

For the past 30 years, Australia's prison population has been growing.

On any given day, across the nation's 114 jails, around 30,000 criminals are doing time.

But the fact is, most of them come from, and return to, a small number of disadvantaged communities.

Now, the Federal Government is considering an idea known as 'justice reinvestment' to stop the cycle, as Christine Heard reports.



Hanging with the wrong crowd.

That's what Isaac (not his real name) says got him started on crime.

Last year, the then 17 year old spent three months in juvenile detention.


"You hate life inside. You fight all the time. Stress out all the time. You worry about your family all the time. You always start punching stuff. You know, you just want to hit someone. It's just terrible you know. Not a good place to be."

Now charged with more offences - allegedly committed before his time inside - Isaac faces the possibility of going back.


"I don't want that you know. I know that if I get locked up, I won't be happy with myself. I'll come out and become bad, become leaders, gangs, and I'll just go back to the same lifestyle."

Helping him stay straight is Tony Hoang.

The former gang member, turned pastor to troubled youths - who featured in the SBS TV series Once Upon A Time in Cabramatta - says jail is the last place Isaac should be.


"I think where he stands at the moment, the support he needs is from the outside which will change his behaviour and make the right choices because he's already started making those decisions here."


One method aimed at keeping some offenders out of jail is known as 'justice reinvestment'.

It began ten years ago in the United States, the country with the world's largest prison population.

It works by identifying savings in the prison system, and then investing those savings into the very communities that are producing large numbers of offenders.

Melanie Schwartz, chief investigator with the Australian Justice Reinvestment Project at the University of New South Wales, says when used well, the money strengthens entire communities.


"By investing in those communities to reduce the underlying causes of criminal behaviour, ultimately there is less offending in those communities."

Twenty seven American states have embraced justice reinvestment and Melanie Schwartz says so far, results are promising.

"There is really good early evidence about justice reinvestment - that from the economic perspective it has realised savings, substantial savings in the criminal justice system, and that those savings have also, at the same time, allowed the projected prison population to stabilise. So there are fewer people in the prison system and it's saving the state a great deal of money."

Last month, a Senate Committee recommended that the Federal Government fund a justice reinvestment trial here.

It cautioned though, that the American concept will have to be modified to suit the Australian system.

Melanie Schwartz agrees, saying a 'go slowly' approach, noting the pitfalls of the US experience, will be essential.

And she says voters will need to be educated about its benefits.

"Justice reinvestment is not a penal abolition project. It's not about abolition of the prison. But what it does say - and I don't think this is contentious actually - is that there are a lot more people in prison than need to be there."


Victims need educating too, says Ken Marslew [marz-loo] from Enough is Enough, an anti-violence initiative born out of the murder of his son in 1994.

He says fifty per cent of Australia's prisoners are serving sentences of less 12 months, and justice reinvestment could help them and victims.


"Some people see it as a soft option when in fact it's a very powerful tool. Some would be a little reluctant to see offenders have more money spent on them, but if we're going to look at the big picture we really need to develop justice reinvestment across our communities."


Meanwhile Howard Brown, from the New South Wales Victims of Crime Assistance League, says in his experience, victims get it.


"We're not idiots - we actually see the history of these people, and we see if that something had been done far earlier - intervention - we wouldn't have lost our loved ones. And so if we can get to those people who are not at the high end, we can actually stop high-end crime from occurring. We're not doing that."

Juvenile offender Isaac hopes to learn carpentry from his brother, should he avoid a second conviction.

And he says he's knows what he has to do to keep out of trouble.


"Follow instructions, going by the law rules, you know that's it, follow the rules and you'll get somewhere in life. Keep away from all the bad people you know."


That's something justice reinvestment might help him do.


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