"What we’re finding from the pilots that we’re seeing, we can actually intervene in a way that moves it and shifts people off the path to prison," Judy Slatyer, the CEO of the Australian Red Cross, told Stan Grant on The Point.
She used the example of the organisation's pilot program operating in Nowra where volunteers help prevent minor offenders, such as those who accumulate driving fines, from entering the jail.
The volunteers teach Aboriginal adults to drive and maintain their car safely, she explains.
"And through that we've seen a 55 per cent drop in those then going on to enter the justice system."
This research has informed Red Cross' Vulnerability Report: Rethinking Justice released on Thursday.
The report explores the potential for Australia to deploy “justice reinvestment”, the concept of re-channeling funds into prisons to prevent people from going to jail in the first place.
It calls on governments across the country and the Commonwealth to implement its five recommendations, including reducing imprisonment rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by 50 per cent over the next five years.
Ms Judy Slatyer says there is both an economic and humanitarian imperative to consider potentially more effective justice models.
“Justice reinvestment is a cost-effective alternative to what we’re currently doing, which is not working, costing us billions and is fundamentally inhumane,” Ms Slatyer says.
The Red Cross estimates it costs $3.4 billion to build and operate prisons across Australia.
“With nearly 34,000 people held in Australian prisons, the impact on the lives of prisoners, their families, and communities is detrimental, inhumane and unacceptable,” she says.
“The continuing over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and other people who experience social exclusion and disadvantage, cannot continue unchallenged.”
Indigenous people are incarcerated at a rate 15 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians, according to 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics data.
A 2015 Amnesty International report notes the rate is even higher for Indigenous children who are are 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than their counterparts.
Hon. Michael Kirby AC says in the report that: "The incarceration in Indigenous offenders is a special source of shame for observers of the Australian prison system."
The Red Cross estimates justice reinvestment reforms could save $1.2 billion over five years, and if the rate of incarceration were reduced by 2 per cent a year, further savings of $2.3 billion could be generated over five years.
Red Cross recommendations
1. That all governments in Australia rethink and change their approaches to justice to achieve lower crime rates, lower incarceration rates, reduced prison costs and stronger, safer communities.
2. That all governments in Australia introduce a justice reinvestment approach and jointly support its implementation through the Law, Crime and Community Safety Council of the Council of Australian Governments.
3. That all governments in Australia establish, fund and evaluate justice reinvestment trials across Australia in specific geographic communities with high rates of crime to determine how justice reinvestment can be applied in Australian contexts.
4. That state and territory governments adopt the justice reform proposals outlined in this report to: • prevent crime and recidivism
- increase non-custodial sentencing
- improve parole and reintegration to the community.
5. That, as a first step, all governments in Australia commit to:
- a 10 per cent reduction in adult imprisonment rates over the next five years
- a Closing the Gap justice target to reduce the unacceptably high adult imprisonment rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by 50 per cent over the next five years.