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Who are we locking up with these violent offenders?

The Mercury 9 September 2020 , Lara Giddings and Jim Wilkinson

Prisoner numbers soar and reoffending shoots up, write Lara Giddings and Jim Wilkinson

TASMANIA is about to introduce laws that make it easier to imprison high-risk offenders for life, which have received broad support in the parliament. However, the question for our politicians and the community is, not should we be locking up violent high-risk offenders, but who are we locking up with these violent offenders?

Most of the 700 people in our prisons are not violent offenders and pose no risk to the community. Instead of helping these people reform, our prison system makes them more likely to commit further crime, making the community less safe. Last year the number of adult prisoners in Tasmania climbed by 13 per cent, continuing an upward trend which began in 2015. Yet higher levels of incarceration led to Tasmania recording the fastest growing recidivism rate in the country. Nearly half of all adults released from prison in this state reoffend and will be back behind bars within two years.

This is a pattern we see across the country and overseas — crime leads to jail, which leads to more crime in a vicious and irrational cycle of disadvantage and misery.

This begs the question: if jail makes people more likely to commit further crime, why isn’t this the focus of reform? A big part of the answer is that reform that releases prisoners is not considered a winner at the ballot box. Governments of all political persuasions have at best been silent on reform and at worst defaulted to a “tough on crime” rhetoric.

Recent tougher sentencing measures have resulted in our prison becoming overcrowded, the only solution to build another in the North.

But the consequences of imprisonment are ultimately borne by the entire community — the victims of crime, minor offenders condemned to incarceration and of course the taxpayer who cops the bill for the jails, the crime and the cost of trying to rebuild broken lives on both sides.

Australia now imprisons more people than at any time since 1900, in both total number and per capita, at a cost exceeding $3.6 billion annually, with Tasmanians paying more per person than anywhere in Australia to keep people locked up.

In our state, the average cost to the taxpayer is more than $110,000 per year for each inmate.

An avalanche of evidence from experts and governments of many political persuasions has found that reforms to the criminal justice system lead to better economic and social outcomes.

This has motivated a new multi-partisan group joining the chorus of voices advocating for change in our criminal justice system. We want a more clear-eyed and impartial examination of the role of prisons because our dependency on locking people up is not working.

Launching this week with former Governors-General Dame Quentin Bryce and Sir William Deane as patrons-in-chief, the Justice Reform Initiative is a broad alliance that includes many of us who have seen first-hand how the overuse of prison sentences in our justice system leads to worse outcomes for our society, not better.

Reoffending rates show us that locking someone up for relatively minor offences can kickstart a terrible cycle of crime and imprisonment, entrenching disadvantage and making the community less safe, not safer.

The independent Custodial Inspector has consistently reported that the growth in prisoner numbers has put our correctional system into crisis, with minimum-security rated prisoners housed in medium and maximum security settings, double and triple bunking occurring in cells built for one or two people, little access to prerelease programs and high demands on health and post-release services.

The Productivity Commission last year found Tasmanian prisoners had the lowest rate of employment within the prison while incarcerated, and the least amount of time out of cells in the country.

Is it any surprise people leave these places and find themselves prone to reoffending?

The journey after leaving prison is sadly not much better. Of about 750 adults released from prison every year in Tasmania, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports 54 per cent are homeless upon their release and 78 per cent are unemployed.

Building more prisons in our state is an expensive Band-Aid solution to a much bigger problem, and a waste of money when we should be investing in solutions with demonstrated success in keeping people out of jail.

“Tough on crime” is not what the community wants. Research consistently finds that informed citizens are more lenient than judges when imposing sentence, not the other way around. Governments need to play catch up with public sentiment.

Jailing is failing as a deterrent, it is failing taxpayers and it is failing the most disadvantaged in our community.

It is time for Tasmania to lead Australia away from being an incarceration nation.

Lara Giddings is a former Tasmanian Labor premier. Lawyer Jim Wilkinson is a former independent Nelson MLC and Legislative Council president. They are patrons of the national Justice Reform Initiative, launched this week.

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