By Michael Hill, The Mercury, 12 August 2023
With a new Northern prison on the drawing board at a cost of at least $270 million, Tasmanian policymakers must consider the overwhelming evidence that shows building new prisons does nothing to deter crime or make the community safer.
New prison beds fill regardless of crime rates and at an enormous expense. The question is, does the Tasmanian Government have the political will to change course?
Tasmania should resolutely be at the forefront of justice reform in Australia given our comparatively smaller size paired with the recent acknowledgement of the youth justice system’s failings.
Building the proposed Northern prison would be a monumental backstep – particularly in light of the welcome decision to close the Ashley Youth Detention Centre, recognising that the facility was costly, harmful, and ineffective.
It is critical that we continue this evidence-based approach to the justice system as a whole and similarly acknowledge the failures of adult incarceration.
Overincarceration does not solve the problem of crime but pushes it down the track, funnelling too many disadvantaged people into a punitive system which makes future offending more likely, not less. To address prison numbers, policymakers must decrease the number of people being sent to prison, rather than simply create more beds.
Imagine what we could achieve if we invested funds from prison blocks into the many proven programs and support services across all points of the justice system that are working to reduce crime and stop people coming into contact with the system in the first place.
While disadvantage does not discount the consequence of crime, we must understand the drivers of crime to build effective policy that reduces the likelihood of further offences and reduces the numbers of people in prison.
Disadvantage is entrenched in prison systems. We know that 40% of people in prison have mental health conditions, 60% have a drug or alcohol dependency and half of all people in prison were homeless, while more than half exit prison into homelessness.
Ensuring that disability, mental health, and homelessness services are accessible to more people in contact with the justice system, and that the community sector is equipped to serve them, is essential to reducing incarceration and recidivism.
To do this we must have mechanisms within the court system that allow magistrates a suitable alternative to turn to in lieu of prison, as well as appropriately funded and accessible support services in the community that provide pathways away from prison.
While Tasmania has a diversion list and a court mandated diversion program, we could do much more to ensure alternatives to mainstream court processes, including restorative and transformative justice, are available to a much larger cohort of people who come into contact with the court system.
We must increase the capacity of bail support services to shrink the number of people in prison who are there on remand (one-third) and increase bail compliance. We should also address recidivism by scaling proven post-release diversionary support services.
The Justice Reform Initiative, of which I am a patron, has released a report which proposes redirecting the $270 million committed to a new prison towards a Breaking The Cycle fund over four years, which would bolster the capacity of community-led programs that are successfully reducing crime and recidivism.
The report notes many programs and services, particularly First Nations-led programs, that are punching well above their weight with limited funding.
For example, the Salvation Army’s re-integration program for people leaving prison lost its funding entirely in 2015, despite an independent evaluation confirming a success rate of 93.5% with a 6.5% recidivism rate – significantly lower than recidivism rates of the general prison population of about 46%.
Bethlehem House, which provides accommodation and support to nearly seventy men who are homeless, similarly achieved dramatic reductions in reoffending through intensive case management programs and turned lives around for people at high risk of re-offending. The Post Release Options project, which ran between 2008 and 2011, saw only 8 people reoffend.
Tasmania can and should lead the nation when it comes to a smarter justice system. But we need to take the opportunity to change course towards the services that turn lives around, rather than continue to invest in a prison system that is failing.
Michael Hill is a former Chief Magistrate of Tasmania and former Acting Justice of the Supreme Court of Tasmania. He is a patron of the Justice Reform Initiative, Adjunct Professor within the Faculty of Law at the University of Tasmania and Chair of the Just Desserts Drug Court Support Group.