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Jailing is failing – we need to break the cycle

By Fred Chaney, The West Australian, 1 March 2023

We can take no pride in the fact that Western Australia has the highest incarceration rate of all the states.

Nor in the fact that almost two-thirds of the people in our prisons have been there before – a clear indication that whatever rehabilitation we’re trying to accomplish through imprisonment isn’t working.

There is overwhelming evidence that prison is criminogenic – the experience of imprisonment makes it more likely that future offending will take place. As it currently stands, our justice system both fails to address the causes of crime and leads to further offending and more time in gaol.

So rather than spending eyewatering amounts on this failing approach (adult prisons cost WA taxpayers more than $700 million a year), what could we achieve if we instead followed the evidence and invested our dollars in programs and services proven to yield better results?

A new report released today by the Justice Reform Initiative, of which I am one of the patrons, examines the strong successes of early intervention and prevention programs which are halving offending amongst at risk populations, bail support programs, post release and diversionary community-led programs, and alternative sentencing and court processes that have all found dramatic decreases in recidivism and criminal justice contact.

The Initiative, which is a non-political alliance of Australians advocating for an evidence-based criminal justice system, is calling for the state government to take a smarter approach by creating a Breaking the Cycle fund that invests in programs and services run by the community sector (including critically, Aboriginal-led community organisations) that are proven to address the social drivers of crime and resultant incarceration

A meaningfully resourced fund, such as an initial investment of $300 million over four years, would lead to a significant reduction in recidivism and criminal justice system involvement.

Where crime issues exist in Western Australia – and we don’t ignore the fact that they do – police have made it clear that we cannot “arrest our way” out of it.

The social and economic drivers of crime cannot be solved by policing. The report identifies the range of factors that lead to imprisonment and repeat offending. We need a multi-faceted approach that tackles issues across a range of areas including health, housing, unemployment and education, recognising that the vast majority of people in contact with the criminal justice system come from circumstances of disadvantage often exacerbated by mental health issues, disability and alcohol and other drug dependency.

There is no doubt that existing community-led programs in Western Australia, including Aboriginal-led place-based programs, are achieving strong outcomes in reducing crime and recidivism. However, these programs are often under-resourced, funded in a piecemeal way, limited to work with small numbers of people, and despite their successes on a small scale, do not have the capacity to make a systemic difference in terms of reducing rates of incarceration.

Far too many people who are cycling in and out of our police stations, courts and prisons are ‘managed’ by the justice system, and never get the opportunity to access the kind of supports in the community that would make a difference.

The figures tell us that keeping an adult in prison costs around $297 each day or $108,405 per year. Providing intensive, specialist community-based support with proven ability to keep people out of prison comes at a fraction of this cost, with estimates ranging from $8,000 to $36,000 per person per year (the higher cost arising when case-loads for workers are very low because they are supporting people with very high needs). Residential treatment is more expensive, but still far cheaper and more effective in reducing recidivism than incarceration.

We cannot make significant inroads without accepting that this is too big a job for one department or one minister alone. We need a whole of government commitment to solve the problem of over-incarceration, drawing in expertise and resources across a range of portfolios like health, family services, housing, employment, and education.  All of these areas are relevant to why individuals offend and why they reoffend.

Our state has the highest incarceration rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are 19 times more likely to be in prison than the non-Aboriginal adult population and account for 40% of WA’s prison population despite just making up 3.3% of the general population. Aboriginal children make up 76% of children in detention.

Recognising the challenges and the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the justice system, at least half of the Breaking the Cycle fund should be dedicated to Aboriginal-led organisations. This is in line with the aspirations of the state’s Closing the Gap plan.

The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that jailing is failing. What is lacking is political will to ensure all relevant agencies play their part as well as to significantly scale up and make real investment in evidence-based programs and services that can deliver better results for individuals and communities.

Such an investment to break the cycle would be a legacy that pays dividends for generations to come.


Fred Chaney AO is a patron of the Justice Reform Initiative and former Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and for Social Security. He is also a former Deputy President, National Native Title Tribunal and Co-Chair, Reconciliation Australia.


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