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High-level call to reform jail system ‘blight’

The Australian 8 September 2020, Yoni Bashan

Two former governors-general, and some of the country’s most prominent jurists, are calling for dramatic prison reforms and warning the country’s rising incarceration rates are a blight with little benefit to victims or the community.

Quentin Bryce and William Deane, former governors-general, are the most prominent backers of the push — alongside former High Court judges Michael Kirby and Mary Gaudron and former Family Court chief justice Elizabeth Evatt.

The Justice Reform Initiative will this week begin briefing federal and state parliamentarians on a need to increase community-based sentencing and put more money into diversionary programs such as drug rehabilitation and job-skilling.

The project, chaired by former Keating government minister Robert Tickner, is warning the country’s incarceration rate is higher, per capita, than at any time since federation.

The number of adult prisoners now stands at 43,028, almost double that of 2000, while the number of female prisoners increased 64 per cent in the decade to 2019.

Australia now has the third-highest prisoner population in the OECD, with only the US and New Zealand having a higher proportion of people in jail.

Mr Tickner, the former Australian Red Cross chief executive, said rehabilitation prospects would be greatly improved if some prisoners were allowed to serve their sentences in the community.

Australians were experiencing a generational shift in their attitudes towards incarceration, he said. “This obsession with incarceration will become as discredited as the policies of slavery, or the mistreatment of people with disabilities,” he said.

“People will think back on this in 15 years’ time and think, ‘What on earth were they doing?’.”

The Justice Reform Initiative is also backed by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer, former Law Council president Arthur Moses and former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chief executive Pat Turner.

They have signed on to be patrons of the organisation, as have former West Australian premiers Geoff Gallop and Peter Dowding, ex-Queensland premier Mike Ahern and ex-South Australian premier Lynn Arnold.

Mr Tickner plans on sending an open briefing to politicians across the country concluding there is an over-reliance on prisons and a failure to stem reoffending. The briefing, provided to The Australian on Monday, points to numerous deficiencies in these policies; it says overcrowding is reducing the impact of support programs delivered in jail, particularly to those suffering mental illness or cognitive disability.

Evidence shows that placing people in jail for trivial offences — many from disadvantaged or marginalised backgrounds — increases their likelihood of committing a more serious crime in the future, the briefing says.

“One Corrective Services Commissioner has confirmed that 70 per cent of the prison population is functionally illiterate,” the briefing paper says. Almost 90 per cent of young people in custody have a past or present psychological condition, the briefing reads.

Mr Tickner said one reason for a surge in inmates came down to “law-and-order auctions” held during election periods.

This had resulted in successive governments taking unnecessarily hard stances on crime, despite growing evidence showing these did not act as a deterrent, he said. “We are locking up people who pose no serious threat without the justification of enhancing community safety,” he said.

“The revolving prison door is bad for families and communities, and entrenches disadvantage.

“It wastes human potential and is scandalously wasteful of public money that could be spent on enhancing the wellbeing and productivity of communities.”

This has increased prison expenditure, according to Productivity Commission figures, from $2.5bn in 2011 to $3.6bn — or $110,000 per prisoner — in 2020.

“Sadly, past politicians have not served the public well on this issue because of all the law-and-order rhetoric,” Mr Tickner said.

“The policies to build more prisons have failed, and they’ve cost a massive amount of money.”



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