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Big jump in prison rates prompts call for justice reforms in Tasmania

By Lucy MacDonald, ABC News, 26 April 2021


A group of prominent Tasmanians, including three former politicians, is calling on the major parties to ditch the proposed northern prison, in the wake of a damning report into the state's justice system.

Instead of the divisive Westbury proposal, the group wants to see more money on preventative and rehabilitative services.

The report by the Justice Reform Initiative — a national multi-partisan alliance that wants to end Australia's "dangerously high reliance on jails" — reveals Tasmania's prison population has grown by 37 per cent in the past decade.

About two-thirds (66.5 per cent) of inmates have been in prison before, the highest rate in a decade and higher than the national average of 59.5 per cent.

The report also says that "each contact with the criminal justice system significantly increases the risk of further contact", meaning from the first time a person is sent to prison, they are more likely to return.

For Tony Bull, this has been his life since he was 12 years old.

He has been out of prison for 14 years now, but for 20 years he was in and out of the system.

He said prison in Tasmania is treated as a "holding cell".

"The Tasmanian justice system has been so focussed on control and containment — contain the inmate, don't give them the opportunity, just contain them," he said.

"Why not use that holding cell for a more positive approach?

"Rehabilitation programs, education opportunity should be the focus, not the control and containment attitude the prison system has had for eternity.

"There's no reason why a car thief can't go to jail a car thief, but come out a carpenter."

He does not believe building a second prison is the answer to the state's justice woes.

"It doesn't matter whether you build a new prison, or where you build it, if that mentality and ideology doesn't change, we're just going to keep building new prisons," he said."It has to be focussed on programs and education. If you want someone to change, you've got to give them the opportunity and make them believe in themselves to be able to do that."

His comments echo the attitude of the Justice Reform Initiative who have taken up the mantra "jailing is failing".

"We have a prison system that is expanding and crime is going up. Putting people behind prison walls is not stopping crime," said former Labor premier Lara Giddings.

Ms Giddings is one of the three politicians in the Tasmanian branch of the initiative, along with former federal and state Greens leader Christine Milne and former Legislative Council President, independent Jim Wilkinson. 

"It's extremely disappointing that the only solution we have to crime in Tasmania is to build more prison walls," said Ms Giddings.

"All that will lead to is more crime and more people filling those cells. That's the last thing we want in Tasmania."

Justice reform has barely featured in the state's snap election — both the Liberals and Labor have pledged to build a second prison, the only thing they disagree on is the whereabouts. The Greens do not support the prison.

Liberal leader Peter Gutwein said building a northern prison would help with rehabilitation efforts because it would allow northern prisoners' families and support network to keep in touch while they're in prison.

Labor leader Rebecca White said the party was committed to addressing the causes of crime, which includes focussing on rehabilitation as well as intervention programs to reduce offending. 

She said building a northern prison would provide an opportunity to focus on these matters as part of the model. 

Ms Milne said it was costing $94 million to "keep people warehoused in prison".

"Fifty-eight per cent of young people return to prison within one year. This is not the way to go," she said.

"We shouldn't be building a northern prison in Tasmania, we should be funding the services, particularly mental health."


Mental health, disability driving prison population

The initiative's report found that 67 per cent of people entering prison had a mental health condition, while 62 per cent reported living with a disability.

"If you put people in prison and then take them out again and they have nowhere to live, no employment and a mental health issue, why would we be surprised when they're back in prison in a short time?" Ms Milne said."Let's stop this nonsense with tough on crime and get smart on crime. Let's fund the services in the community to help people avoid going to prison."

She said the way to have a safer community was to keep people out of prison.

 "If you want to stop people from re-offending, then you have to have serious rehab programs. You can't just increase the severity," she said.

"There's a real failure … to understand that mental health, homelessness and unemployment are the drivers of people going into prison and the driver of people re-offending when they leave prison."

Former president of Legislative Council independent Jim Wilkinson said the statistics were worse for younger Tasmanians.

"If they're a young person, they go to prison, they're back within a year," he said.

"There are a lot of underlying issues which cause that, they're the issues we should be looking at — family situations, mental health, drugs and alcohol. All those things lead to people going back to prison again and again."


Costings don't stack up: Wilkinson

He also said funding preventative services was not just about improving circumstances for the individual, it was an economic argument.

Tasmania's prison system costs $93.9 million each year. Each prisoner costs a little over $122,000 per year, the second-highest cost nationally.

"It's always been a situation where all parties say you have to get tough on crime. What we're saying is there are better ways to do it," he said.

"Anybody that looks at the economics of it can see that by having a better way, and a way that we're discussing now, there's going to be an economic benefit for the state as well."

While the members of the initiative do not purport to have all the answers, they want to consider overseas models for inspiration such as Norway which focuses on rehabilitation and teaching people how to be good neighbours.

In the Netherlands, a rapid decline in incarceration rates has led to 19 prisons closing in the past few years.

"Jailing is failing. We have that mantra for a reason. It is failing here in Tasmania, it's failing in Australia," Ms Giddings said.

"We want a safer community … mandatory sentencing doesn't deliver that, building a northern prison doesn't deliver that, in fact, what we will see is more crime. 

"So rather than go to short political stunts in election campaigns, that just fill our prisons up, we're saying it's time all politicians listen to the evidence, look at what's actually happening, look at overseas jurisdictions that are closing prisons, not building them.

Keenly aware that the state is days out from an election, Mr Bull said he hoped the major parties were listening because as it stands, Tasmania's prisoners do not stand a chance at rehabilitation.

"No education, no drug and alcohol [rehabilitation], no real sport. What is a young fella or an old fella for that matter … how is he going to come out of that prison system after three months or six months or six years?"

"He's a prisoner again before he gets down the end of the driveway." 



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