Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 22 March 2023
A new report on Victoria’s justice system has underscored the need for wide-ranging reforms to reduce the number of people coming into prison and strengthen evidence-based alternatives that prevent offending and improve community safety.
The report, released today by the Justice Reform Initiative – an alliance which includes former parliamentarians from all sides of politics, as well as respected Aboriginal leaders, judicial figures and community experts – shows the state’s prison population has soared 32% over the past decade. The proportion of unsentenced people in Victoria’s prisons more than doubled in that time, from 20% of the prisoner population to 42%.
While the overall number of children in detention has fallen, a staggering 83% of the children in Victoria’s prisons are imprisoned awaiting sentencing.
The report comes as the Victorian government prepares to unveil a package of justice reforms, a year after a multipartisan parliamentary committee made 100 recommendations for change, finding that the existing approach to criminal justice was not reducing crime or improving community safety.
Dr Mindy Sotiri, Executive Director of the Justice Reform Initiative, urged the Victorian government to seize on the opportunity presented by multipartisan support for reform and lead the country in evidence-based policy measures that will reduce prison numbers, save taxpayers’ money and reduce offending to improve community safety.
“This is a moment to make Victoria a leader in justice policy,” she said. “We’ve seen the devastating consequences that can flow from kneejerk policy reactions and politicised ‘law and order auctions’, but putting more people into prison at enormous cost doesn’t actually work to make the community safer.
“This report shows that the increase in imprisonment rates has not been driven by severity of offending or crime, but rather by systemic failings and policy choices that end up funnelling people unnecessarily into prison.
“This overwhelmingly affects people from disadvantaged groups, including First Nations people, newly arrived migrants and refugees, children in out of home care, people with mental health conditions and people with disability. We know this leads to tragic consequences, particularly for First Nations women who have been unnecessarily funnelled into prison on remand, often for crimes that would not warrant a custodial penalty.
“We urge the Victorian Government to recognise the overwhelming evidence base for change and build a legacy of reforms that invest in people, not prisons. Working cooperatively and with a new spirit of bipartisanship, we can break the cycle and genuinely address the factors that bring people into contact with the criminal justice system.”
The report highlights that:
- More than half (53%) of people in Victoria’s prison have been there before, creating a ‘revolving door’ system that costs taxpayers $1 billion a year in operation costs alone.
- Spending on prisons has almost doubled (96% increase) over the past decade.
- A greater proportion of women (48%) than men (37%) are detained in prison before being sentenced. More than half of all unsentenced women do not apply for bail, despite the majority of their offences being non-violent crimes.
- Since 2011, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in prison has increased from 6.2% to 12% of the total prison population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are imprisoned at 15.6 times the rate of the non-Indigenous population, despite making up just 1% of Victoria’s population.
- More than half (52%) of unsentenced people in Victorian prisons have been held on remand for more than three months. One-third (32%) have been held on remand for more than six months and 17% for longer than a year.
“It’s clear that prison does not rehabilitate or reduce the likelihood of coming back to prison – more than a third of people who leave prison are back with another sentence within two years of their release,” Dr Sotiri said.
“Evidence shows investing in housing, accessible alcohol and other drug treatment, First-Nations led programs and mental health and disability support are more effective in improving community safety and delivering better returns for taxpayers’ money.
“Victoria needs a dedicated, evidence-based reorientation of policy and funding commitments, strengthening the community sector so that people have the opportunity to receive support, care and connection in the community rather than being ‘managed’ in the justice system.”
The Justice Reform Initiative is a multi-partisan alliance supported by more than 120 of our most eminent Australians, including two former Governors-General, former Members of Parliament from all sides of politics, academics, respected Aboriginal leaders, senior former judges, including High Court judges, and others who have added their voices to end Australia’s dangerously high reliance on jails.
The Initiative is calling for governments around Australia to move away from an entrenched reliance on incarceration as the mainstay of the criminal justice system and adopt an evidence-based approach to deliver better results for taxpayers, communities and people in the criminal justice system.
Our Victorian Patrons include:
- The Honourable Jennifer Coate AO.Former Justice of the Family Court of Australia and Commissioner, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Former President of the Children's Court of Victoria.
- Tim Costello AO.Former Mayor of St Kilda and CEO of World Vision, currently chair of the Community Council for Australia.
- Jon Faine AM.Broadcaster, commentator and lawyer.
- Petro Georgiou AO. Former Federal Member for Kooyong 1994-2010, Victorian Director of the Liberal Party 1989-94, founding Director of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs.
- Louise Glanville.Chief Executive Officer, Victorian Legal Aid.
- Professor Emeritus Joe Graffam BBSc MA PhD Hon Doc MAPS FAICD. Former Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research of Deakin University, Convenor of the Reintegration Puzzle, researcher, justice reform advocate.
- The Honourable Rob Hulls.Former Deputy Premier and Attorney-General of Victoria. Director of the Centre for Innovative Justice at RMIT University.
- Ian Gray AM.Former Chief Magistrate of Victoria and of the Northern Territory, and former County Court Judge and Victorian State Coroner.
- Andrew Jackomos PSM – Respected Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara elder, former Special Advisor to the Victorian Government on Aboriginal Self-Determination, former Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People at the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People.
- The Honourable Jenny Macklin. Former Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Minister for Disability Reform.
- The Honourable Patrick McNamara. Former Leader of the National party in Victoria, 1988-1999, and 24th Deputy Premier of Victoria 1992-1999. Patrick held numerous Ministerial portfolios during his time as Deputy Premier including Minister for Police and Emergency Services and Minister for Corrections. He has also been honoured to serve as the Chair of both the major Victorian Bushfire Appeals over the past decade with the support of both sides of the parliament.
- The Honourable Marcia Neave AO.Former Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria and Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Family Violence.
- The Honourable Alastair Nicholson AO KC RFD. Former Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, former Chair of the Parole Board of Victoria, former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia and Justice of the Federal Court of Australia.
- Peter Norden, AO FANZSOC. Honorary Fellow in Criminology at Deakin University, Fellow of the Australian & New Zealand Society of Criminology. Peter has worked for criminal justice reform for many years, including as Pentridge Prison Chaplain, as the Founder and CEO of Jesuit Social Services, and as Convenor of the Victorian Criminal Justice Coalition.
- Fiona Patten, Former Victorian member of parliament and Chair of the Victorian Parliament Standing Committee on Legal and Social Issues overseeing numerous law and order inquiries including the Inquiry into Victoria’s Criminal Justice System.
For more information and a copy of the report, visit https://www.justicereforminitiative.org.au/.
Media contact: Pia Akerman 0412 346 746
The Initiative respectfully acknowledges and supports the current and longstanding efforts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reduce the numbers of Indigenous people incarcerated in Australia and, importantly, the leadership role which Indigenous-led organisations continue to play on this issue. We also acknowledge the work of many other individuals and organisations seeking change, such as those focused on the rate of imprisonment for women, people with mental health issues, people with disability and others.