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Media Release: New report shows jailing is failing South Australia

Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 12 April 2022

The Malinauskas government has been urged to adopt evidence-based reforms to cut recidivism rates and reduce the number of South Australians behind bars, as figures reveal the existing approach to criminal justice is failing.

A report released by the Justice Reform Initiative today details how South Australia’s overreliance on incarceration has reinforced a ‘revolving door’ for those who get caught in the justice system, with prisons costing $361 million a year despite evidence that there are more effective ways to reduce reoffending rates.

The Justice Reform Initiative – an alliance which includes former parliamentarians from all political persuasions, as well as some of the country’s most preeminent legal and judicial figures and experts – is calling on the new South Australian government to invest in policies and programs that are proven to deliver better outcomes in terms of community safety, instead of pumping more money into new prison beds.

The report shows that successive state governments have relied too heavily on incarceration as a default response to both disadvantage and offending:

  • The number of people in South Australian prisons has exploded by nearly 50% over the past decade;
  • More than half (56%) have been in prison before;
  • 42.3% of people released from prison in South Australia currently return to prison or receive a community order with a new sanction within two years;
  • 8% of South Australia’s prison population is unsentenced – a higher percentage than all other states and territories;
  • 8% of people in South Australian prisons have been held on remand for more than three months;
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are significantly overrepresented in the prison population at 23.5%, while making up only two per cent of the state’s total population.

Justice Reform Initiative executive director Mindy Sotiri said the historic approach was entrenching cycles of disadvantage which kept bringing people back to prison, calling on the new South Australian government to seize the opportunity for evidence-based reform.

“We are deeply alarmed by the fact that South Australian taxpayers are spending $1.5 million this financial year for the business case for a ‘rehabilitation prison’,” Dr Sotiri said. “Coupled with the $187 million allocated for new prison beds, this is money which the state cannot afford to spend on a failed and antiquated approach to criminal justice.

“South Australia has a proud history of leading the nation in many areas of social reform, and we urge the Malinauskas government to take this chance for a new direction which is backed by evidence and would deliver better outcomes for all South Australians.

“Governments around the world are acknowledging jailing is failing and changing their approach. It’s time to invest in people, not prisons, and tackle the underlying social issues that funnel many disadvantaged people into the criminal justice system.

“If we want to reduce incarceration, we need to focus on building and resourcing evidence-based alternatives to prison that genuinely address the causes of contact with the criminal justice system,” Dr Sotiri said. “Community-led diversionary and post-release programs are remarkably successful at reducing the numbers of people cycling in and out of our prisons. We also know that Aboriginal-led community organisations are extraordinarily effective (when resourced and supported) at reducing Aboriginal over-incarceration.

“Not surprisingly, programs that address homelessness, social and cultural community connection, and facilitate access to a range of services and supports including for mental health, cognitive impairment and problematic drug and alcohol are very effective at reducing crime and reducing contact with the justice system. Alongside this investment into community-led alternatives, we need legislative shifts that will prevent children unnecessarily entering the justice system in the first place – raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 is a key part of this work."

The Justice Reform Initiative is a multi-partisan alliance supported by more than 100 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. 

Our South Australian patrons include:

  • The Honourable Reverend Dr Lynn Arnold AO, former Premier of South Australia.
  • Dr Andrew Cannon AM FAAL, former Deputy Chief Magistrate of South Australia and now adjunct Professor at Adelaide and Flinders Universities and visiting Professor at Münster and Trier Universities (Germany) 
  • Helen Connolly, Inaugural South Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People
  • Professor Mark Halsey, Centre for Crime Policy and Research, Flinders University
  • The Honourable Robert Hill AC, former Federal Minister and former Australian Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
  • Dr. Robyn Layton AO QC, former Supreme Court Judge, Adjunct Professor Justice & Society, University of South Australia
  • Peter Norman OAM, Auxiliary Master of the Supreme and District Courts of South Australia, National Chairman of the Australian Crime Prevention Council, and former Regional Secretary of the International Prisoners Aid Association
  • Isobel Redmond, Former Leader of the Opposition, Former Shadow Attorney-General, Former legal practitioner
  • Professor Rick Sarre, former Dean and Head of the School of Law University of South Australia
  • The Honourable Chris Sumner AM, South Australia’s longest serving Attorney-General
  • Sue Vardon AO, former senior public servant including inaugural CEO of Centrelink, CEO of SA Correctional Services and Chief Executive of the SA Department of Families and Communities. Sue has been National Telstra Businesswoman of the Year and a member of the Council of a number of universities including Flinders University and University of South Australia.
  • Penny Wright, former Senator for South Australia and currently SA Guardian for Children and Young People and Training Centre Visitor

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.

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