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What can we learn from COVID about justice reform?

A blog post from Dr Mindy Sotiri - Executive Director of the Justice Reform Initiative

Newly released ABS data shows us that during 2019-20 we have seen the first decrease in the Australian prisoner population (of more than 5%) since 2011. In some jurisdictions the prisoner population fell by more than 15% between March and May 2020. 

The average­ daily number of people in prison fell to 41,002 in the September quarter, down from the March-quarter peak of 44,159.

Of course, this occurred in the context of an unprecedented public health crisis and some of the reduction is attributable to postponement of courts. But during the pandemic, something critical changed in the way in which we think about incarceration. The urgency of averting a public health crisis meant keeping people out of prison finally received serious political and leadership attention and action.

As a consequence, most jurisdictions saw substantial changes to policing, parole and bail practices. Almost all of these changes occurred within existing legislative frameworks, and almost all contributed to driving prisoner numbers down for the first time in almost a decade.

There is of course much more that needs to happen outside of policing, bail and parole practices to break cycles of disadvantage and imprisonment.  We need reform to housing, access to drug and alcohol treatment, mental health and disability support, and meaningful post-release pathways. But the accidental experiment of COVID-19 has shown us what can be achieved simply through a shift in focus and procedures within our justice system.

This experience also shows us the extent to which over-incarceration is a policy choice, not an inevitability. Significant reduction in the reliance on prisons can occur with no impact on public safety.  What is required to drive the change is political will. 

As the crisis of the pandemic abates and prisoner numbers again begin to creep up, we hope to learn the lessons of this unusual and difficult year to continue to build a case for dramatically reducing our prisoner population and embedding sustainable alternatives.

Dr Mindy Sotiri is the Executive Director of the Justice Reform Initiative.



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