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Our best hope is to break the cycle of incarceration

By Olga Havnen and Rocket Bretherton, NT News, 14 January 2024

As we enter 2024, the Northern Territory is grappling with an alarming record-high prison population.

On January 2 there were more people behind bars in the Territory than ever before, and that number is rising. 

The prison crisis is so extreme that people are being held in police watch houses and ‘temporary’ holding facilities to cater for the overflow.

Disturbingly, the situation is exacerbated by inhumane prison conditions. The Territory ranks below the standards of most OECD countries with substantial breaches of Australia’s international human rights obligations. 

Overcrowded and dangerous prisons are criminogenic; that is, they make reoffending more likely.

The dire state of incarceration is a great shame on the Territory, and one as a nation we must no longer accept. 

The Northern Territory and federal government must work together with the community sector to recognise that the increasing prison population is symptomatic of deeper issues that demand thoughtful, long-term solutions year-round.

Rather than perpetuating the cycle of incarceration by adding more prison beds – an approach proven to be both ineffective and costly – we must further invest in evidence-based alternatives that break the cycle of incarceration and address the underlying issues.

An alarming 16.5 per cent of Territorians under 18 are homeless, 16 times the national average, and more than half of people who leave prison in Australia exit into homelessness.

More than 40 per cent of people in prison in the NT are being held on remand and more than half have been there before, trapped in a revolving door system. 

Around 60 per cent of children in youth detention have spent time in child protection. Aboriginal people continue to be disproportionately incarcerated, comprising 85 per cent of the adult prison population.

We need to look at evidence-based community alternatives that are more effective than prison at reducing reoffending, and considerably cheaper. We need to look at alternatives for vulnerable populations (including those living with disability and homelessness), alongside alternatives to custody for people on remand (for instance bail support and accommodation) as well as community led sentencing alternatives for those on short sentences.

The research is very clear; people are far less likely to reoffend if they are given opportunities outside of the prison environment. 

A focus on alternatives to prison in the community would alleviate some of the pressure from overcrowding and understaffing and would have positive flow on effects, steering away from the counter-productive path of continued prison expansion.

Both the NT and federal governments have recognised the need to bolster community services, including a federal budget package in response to the conditions in Alice Springs. But the long rollout of that funding means the effects aren’t flowing through to the community in the short-term.

The goodwill is also not carrying through to action. 

Corrections delivered only a third of its target for education and training programs hours in 2022/23.

Meanwhile, in the past decade, the number of Indigenous people receiving homelessness services support has been increasing at an average rate of five per cent per year.

Frontline organisations are already stretched to breaking point, unable to meet rising demand amid high inflation and rising costs of doing business, which is reducing funding further. There is limited access to programs for family and domestic violence or alcohol and other drugs support that are proven to create better outcomes for people in prison.

Yet, the NT spends more than $224m to lock up adults each year, with a further $47m spent on children’s incarceration.

It is clear we cannot imprison our way to a safer society. Building more prison beds would be a misguided investment into an approach that is failing. Taxpayer dollars would be far better spent boosting community-led programs and services that are working to stem prison numbers, reduce crime, and turn lives around.

The community’s demand for better outcomes, coupled with the support of leaders like Commissioner Varley, presents a chance for reform. 

It is through community-led initiatives, investment in social programs, and addressing systemic disadvantages that we can truly make strides towards a safer NT.

Olga Havnen is Co-Chair of The Aboriginal Justice Agreement, and Board Member and Patron of the Justice Reform Initiative.

Rocket Bretherton is the Justice Reform Initiative’s Campaign and Advocate Coordinator in the NT.


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