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Jailing is failing our society

West Australian Op Ed 9 September 2020, Fiona Stanley and Greg McIntyre

It’s often said that to judge a society look at how it treats its prisoners. 

In Western Australia, we need to take a very hard look at our reliance on locking people up and the evidence that shows that jailing is failing, particularly for young people.

Australia now imprisons more people than at any time since 1900, in both total number and per capita, at a cost exceeding $4 billion annually, equating to $302 per prisoner per day or $110,000 per year. 

The West Australian incarceration rate is the second highest in the country at 344 per 100,000 adults. For comparison, England and Wales have the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe at 143 people per 100,000.

We are falling well out of step with the rest of the world by persisting with a flawed approach to criminal justice, and everyone pays the price for this.

According to the Productivity Commission, nearly half of the people released from prison are currently returning to corrective services within two years of their prison release. The figures are worse for young people and Aboriginal people.

A Telethon Kids Institute study found nine out of ten incarcerated youth at Banksia Hill youth detention centre have some form of neuro-disability – most of which had gone previously undiagnosed despite multiple contacts with government and other agencies. 

These are preventable, adverse life shaping conditions for too many people in our State. We understand that the causal pathways to these conditions start early in life and we need early intervention and investment in children, their families and communities to head off these problems before they become entrenched.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody taught us all these things over 28 years ago.

But instead of receiving targeted health and education interventions, treatment and support, that we advocate, these kids are locked up from the age of 10, when the law deems them old enough to be treated as criminals. 

An overwhelming mass of international evidence shows that the political reliance on imprisonment for adults and especially for children is not an effective deterrent, but instead leads to ever increasing costs for taxpayers, higher rates of reoffending, poorer employment outcomes for offenders and worse education outcomes for an offender’s family. 

For many, jail entrenches a cycle of disadvantage which begets further criminal offending. Our prisons are overcrowded and under-resourced, with scarce and unreliable access to programs and support on release that could make a difference in someone’s life and put them on a more positive path. 

The “tough on crime” rhetoric which pervades our political discourse only succeeds in continuing the cycle of disadvantage and punishing successive generations. 

The overreliance on jail flies in the face of a mountain of evidence from experts and governments of many political persuasions that show reforms to the criminal justice system lead to better economic and social outcomes.

This evidence has motivated a new multi-partisan group to join the chorus of voices advocating for change in our criminal justice system. 

Launching this week with former governors-general Dame Quentin Bryce and Sir William Deane as patrons-in-chief, the Justice Reform Initiative is a broad alliance which includes many who have seen first-hand how the overuse of incarceration leads to worse outcomes for our society, not better.

West Australian patrons include former Federal Ministers for Aboriginal Affairs Fred Chaney and Ian Viner, former premier Peter Dowding, Aboriginal Legal Service CEO Dennis Eggington, former Chief Justice Wayne Martin and former District Court Chief Judge Antoinette Kennedy. 

In Western Australia, we’re imprisoning Indigenous people at 70 per cent higher than the national average and 30 per cent higher than the Northern Territory.

Three decades after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, we have seen little substantial progress on the criminal justice, corrective service and policing reforms which it recommended. 

Instead, we’ve had far too many more tragic examples of people paying the ultimate price and dying in custody. 

There is a clearly a place for incarceration within the system, most obviously for violent offenders who show no remorse, but too many people are being robbed of a real chance to turn their lives around when they pose no risk to society.

We need to put crime in perspective and end our default reliance on locking people up because of a misguided urge to be “tough on crime”.

Research consistently finds that informed citizens are more lenient than judges when imposing sentence, not the other way around. Governments need to catch up with public sentiment and take a more balanced approach to criminal justice.

The Justice Reform Initiative is joining the movement advocating for change in our criminal justice system, because we know that jailing is failing.

The evidence is clear and it’s unacceptable to wait any longer.

Professor Fiona Stanley is former Australian of the Year; Greg McIntyre is executive board member, Law Council of Australia and immediate past president Law Society of WA


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