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The ACT should lead the way on reforms to the justice system

The Canberra Times 23 September 2020, Lorana Bartels, Tom Calma, Rudi Lammers.

There are many reasons people living in the ACT can feel proud of our record in leading the country, but particularly when it comes to law reform.

In 2004, we were the first jurisdiction to pass a Human Rights Act. Last month the ACT Legislative Assembly showed that it would do more to protect our most vulnerable citizens - our children. By becoming the first jurisdiction in Australia to endorse raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, the ACT has shown that it is the clear leader in Australian criminal justice reform, bringing the territory into line with United Nations standards. However, broader reform is sorely needed. 

Australia now imprisons more people than at any time since 1900, in both total number and per capita, at a cost exceeding $3.5 billion annually and equating to $302 per prisoner per day, or $110,000 per year. 

Imprisonment rates are rising in the ACT, as they are across the nation. Over the past decade, the ACT has recorded the fastest-growing prison population in Australia, as well as the highest rates of recidivist and unsentenced prisoners.

No one is saying there is no place for prisons, and many in the community would agree that there presently exists little option but incarceration for those who have committed the most despicable of crimes. 

However, prisons tend to institutionalise people - and people who leave the prison system often graduate to being lifetime criminals. There has to be a better way.

Instead of expanding the Alexander Maconochie Centre, the ACT government has committed to a justice reinvestment approach to reduce recidivism by 25 per cent by 2025, working with and strengthening communities, instead of building more prisons.

"Persistently high recidivism rates show us that jailing is failing, so we need to work harder to convince the rest of the country that reform is needed."

This target is commendable and achievable. There is much to be proud of in the ACT government's justice strategy, which recognises that rehabilitation is cheaper and more beneficial than building more prisons and far more effective in reducing reoffending and keeping our community safe.

Persistently high recidivism rates show us that jailing is failing, so we need to work harder to convince the rest of the country that reform is needed. 

Incarcerating people may make the community safer in the short term, but merely locking people up, instead of diverting them from the court and prison system, without sustainable rehabilitation methods, achieves very little in the long run. 

Overcrowding and lack of resources mean education and reintegration programs, as well as essential counselling and behaviour management courses, are too often pushed aside because "lockdown" is easier to manage. 

There is an avalanche of evidence from experts and governments of all political persuasions that says reform to our traditional criminal justice system leads to better economic and social outcomes.

This is particularly important if we are serious about ending the disproportionate impact of imprisonment on our most vulnerable populations, particularly youth, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people with mental illness and cognitive disability.

Across the country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent 28 per cent of the prison population, despite making up only 3 per cent of the wider Australian population.

The ACT sadly reflects this trend, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders comprising 22 per cent of our adult prisoner population last year, but less than 2 per cent of the total ACT population. 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 it recommended.


COVID-19 has shaken our world and given many of us an opportunity to think about the kind of world we want to live in. Is that a world where children as young as 10 can be locked up? Where those born into the most difficult circumstances are pushed down further into the cycle of disadvantage by a punitive, not restorative, justice system? 

The clear and overdue need for reform has prompted a new multipartisan group to join the chorus of voices advocating for change in our criminal justice system. 

Launched earlier this month, 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 former judges, prosecutors, police, respected Aboriginal leaders and former ministers from both sides of politics - many of whom have witnessed how the overuse of jail leads to worse outcomes for our society, not better.

Spanning the fields of government, justice, corrections, academia, and social and community work, this alliance seeks an unbiased, evidence-based examination of the role imprisonment plays in our justice system, because locking people up does not always work.

The ACT government's move to support raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 is a significant step towards a better justice system - the start of a journey that we hope will continue beyond October, regardless of who wins the ACT election.

The ACT needs to continue leading the way for the rest of Australia. A smarter, better justice system is one we all deserve.

  • Professor Lorana Bartels is the ANU Criminology program leader, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Canberra and co-chair of the ACT chapter of the Justice Reform Initiative.
  • Professor Tom Calma AO is chancellor of the University of Canberra and co-chair of the senior advisory group of the Indigenous Voice to Government, as well as a former co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner and former race discrimination commissioner.
  • Rudi Lammers is a former ACT chief police officer.
  • All three authors are patrons of the Justice Reform Initiative.


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