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'Jailing is failing' so it's time for proper solutions

By Mindy Sotiri, NT News, 2 June 2024

‘Jailing is failing’ is more than a fashion statement. In the Northern Territory, it is simply true.

Shadow Attorney-General Steve Edgington perhaps thought he had a ‘gotcha’ moment when he tabled an old photo of Deputy Chief Minister Chansey Paech wearing a ‘Jailing is Failing’ T-shirt to Parliament, presumably as an attempt at visual proof that the Government don’t take community safety seriously.

However, the failure of imprisonment in the Northern Territory is something that has been rightly acknowledged by both sides of politics, with both Deputy Opposition CLP Leader Gerard Maley and Shadow Treasurer Bill Yan publicly agreeing that jailing, as it currently operates, is failing in the NT.

Yan (a former head of Alice Springs Correctional Centre) correctly pointed to the extraordinarily high rates of people in prison in the NT who have been there before and the absence of funding to diversionary programs that would stem the numbers of people entering the system.

Acknowledging that jailing is failing to reduce crime or make the community safer – or wearing a ‘Jailing is Failing’ shirt – should not be mistaken as being ‘soft’ on crime as the Territory heads to the polls. It also doesn’t undermine the critical reform that is so clearly needed inside Territory prisons.

It is instead a recognition that our political leaders can be smarter about how they can work to prevent crime and reduce prison populations in the NT, which means being realistic about the limitations of the current system to actually achieve that.

The evidence is very clear that imprisonment, as it currently operates, makes reoffending more likely. 

When developing policy responses that are intended to build community safety, we need both sides of politics to stop simply pouring money into prisons and look closely at the evidence that shows prison does not work to deter people from committing crime. Instead, they need to invest in the community safety programs outside of prison that offer proven results.

The recent NT Budget confirmed that an additional $570 million would be invested in policing and $156 million in prisons, including $65 million to accommodate the expected rise in the number of people in prison, which are already at a record high and trending upward.

The $57 million committed to fund new therapeutic prisons in Alice Springs and Darwin is an acknowledgment of the need for change inside our prison structures to reduce recidivism. To achieve change beyond this, we need far more to be invested in the community-led programs outside of prisons that demonstrate much better results.

Jailing is Failing, a campaign from the Justice Reform Initiative, challenges the politicised approach to policy making in this area and calls on all sides of politics across Australia to put political point-scoring and knee-jerk responses aside and commit to real evidence-based solutions that work.

This conversation is particularly important in the lead up to an election when the populist approach threatens to overtake what the evidence shows us will actually make a difference when it comes to building safer communities.

When we funnel resources into building more prisons and expanding police forces, we are not addressing the drivers of crime or incarceration. Instead, we are investing in a failing system that warehouses people without addressing the issues which brought them into the system in the first place.

In the NT, the evidence is damning. The Territory has both the highest rates of incarceration and homelessness in Australia. More than half of all adults released from prison return within 2 years, the highest rate in the country. This revolving door system costs the Territory $224 million each year.

There is a growing body of evidence supporting alternative approaches to criminal justice. For example, there are community-led bail support programs that reduce offending and increase compliance with bail conditions. There are First Nations-place based programs that dramatically reduce crime, post-release programs that reduce offending by close to 70% and early intervention programs shown to reduce crime at a population level by 50%.

While there are many programs like this in the NT, they have been chronically under-resourced and under-valued, preventing them from making the kind of systemic difference the NT needs.

It might have taken a T-shirt to have this conversation, but it is time all sides of politics acknowledge that our current approach is failing.

‘Jailing is Failing’ is a call to action to reevaluate and invest in a justice system that genuinely promotes public safety rather than creating more prison beds to fill.


Dr Mindy Sotiri is executive director of the Justice Reform Initiative.

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