A Holistic Approach to Defending Women: An Interview With the LACW’s Elena Pappas

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Although the number of women behind bars is still relatively small compared to men inside, women’s numbers in prison have been on a dramatic increase over recent years. Last September, there were 3,505 women inmates in Australian facilities compared with 2,080 a decade prior.

This is a 69 percent increase over a ten year period. However, no one is suggesting that during that time more women have turned to crime. Rather, those monitoring the situation put it down to tougher sentencing and stricter bail laws.

Women prisoners tend to have profiles that differ to those of men being sent away. The overwhelming majority of women inside are from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’ve been subjected to some form of violence. And most are the primary carer for children.

And women who fall short of the law mainly do so over minor offences, with many serving short sentences, or even doing time on remand. Either way, the disrupted circumstances they can often be released into – whether that’s with children in care or no accommodation – can lead to reoffending.

A practice with difference

It’s against this backdrop that Jill Prior and Elena Pappas opened Melbourne’s Law and Advocacy Centre for Women (LACW) in February 2016, with the aim of reducing the ever growing numbers of women being sent away in Victoria.

In that state, recent changes to the Bail Act 1977 (VIC) have hit women hard. Many have since been refused bail and remanded on minor offences. And most of these remandees don’t end up receiving a sentence from the court, meaning they’ve served time for no real reason.

Those working at the LACW come to the table with an understanding that their clients are likely to be mothers in impoverished circumstances. They’re mostly the victims domestic or family violence, and the offending they’ve been involved in is liable to be nonviolent.

And the centre for women takes its practice one step further, in that the practitioners seek to identify the underlying causes that have led to clients’ offending, and provide a wrap-around service that goes much further than the courtroom.

A gender-informed approach

Prior to the LACW opening its doors, there was no specialist women’s criminal law service down in Victoria. And local women in desperate circumstances now have a centre to turn to that intimately understands their needs.

LACW senior solicitor and practice manager Elena Pappas brings decades of experience to her role, having been the senior criminal lawyer at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, as well as having a background in workplace relations and anti-discrimination.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke with Ms Pappas about the direct link between violence against women and offending, the gender-informed approach the LACW takes, and the services the centre provides beyond defending the client.

Firstly, you co-founded the Law and Advocacy Centre for Women in response to the rising number of female inmates in Victorian prisons.

This is an issue that’s occurring nationally. According to ABS figures, between June 2001 and June last year, the number of women being incarcerated nationally increased by 133 percent.

Ms Pappas, what’s behind this dramatic rise in women being sent to prison?

It’s a combination of factors. Firstly, if you look at general poverty indicators, women are the highest demographic in a lot of those.

And when you combine that with a relative reduction in social services – like housing and drug and alcohol support, that’s available and appropriate for women in the community – this has flow on effects in the terms of the criminalisation of women.

So, if there are a lack of social services around to assist women who are in situations of crisis as a result of their poverty, it tends to then lead to more offending and more recidivism.

In addition, in Victoria, the Bail Act was recently amended following some horrific violent offences committed by men who were on bail or parole at the time of their offending.

These changes were directed at increasing community safety, but the net has been cast so wide that a large number of people – in particular women, who commit relatively minor offences while on bail – are now required to meet a much higher threshold for bail.

As a result, there has been a surge in the number of women on remand awaiting the finalisation of their court proceedings, in circumstances where many of these women would not otherwise have been facing a term of imprisonment.

It’s often said that the majority of female inmates aren’t in prison for the types of violent crimes that some men are.

What sort of crimes would you say women are being locked up for? And in regard to your clients, what sort of offending does the LACW deal with?

I agree with the statement that the majority of female inmates are not committing the violent crimes that men are committing.

So, what we see a lot of are crimes against property, in the realm of shop thefts and burglary. And also, offences relating to drug use.

In saying that, we do deal with clients across the whole range of criminal offending. So, we’ll assess women whether they’ve committed a minor offence for the first time, or whether they’re someone with a greater experience of the justice system, and across the whole range of offending.

We will help women with the least serious matters to the most serious indictable offences.

The underlying causes that lead women to commit crimes often differ to causes behind male offending as well. What would you say are some of the major reasons that lead women to break the law?

What we have been particularly shocked by is the prevalence of family violence and trauma in the histories of the women that we are assisting.

It’s very hard to pinpoint the reasons someone commits a particular crime. But, if you look more generally at a woman’s path into the criminal justice system, and towards criminalisation, you’ll see a history that’s dotted with instances where they’ve been a victim of family violence.

This has then led to instability around housing. It’s exacerbated by their caring responsibilities, because it’s much more common for women to be the primary carers of children, than it is for male offenders.

And this makes it more difficult for them to access services and find suitable and stable housing, which can lead them out of poverty and the path towards criminalisation.

It really is again looking at those issues around poverty, and in particular for women, its issues around being a victim of domestic violence and instability around housing, which can then lead to drug and alcohol use.

And there’s higher rates of mental health issues amongst female offenders as well. So, all of those issues are exacerbated for women who are already at risk due to their poverty.

So, would you say there’s a direct link between violence against women and criminal offending?

Yes, we would. The numbers certainly show us that, in terms of the huge number of women in prison, who have been the victim of violence themselves.

So, how would you say LACW lawyers approach defending women facing criminal charges in a more tailored way than they might experience if they were represented by a lawyer who doesn’t have a specific focus on women?

There are two factors that really set us apart. One of them is that we adopt a gender-informed approach. Right from the outset, we are looking for those issues that are more commonly faced by women.

So, we are looking for issues around family violence. We are looking for issues around potentially controlling relationships that they might have with a male co-offender.

We are looking for issues that might make things more difficult for them down the track in relation to their caring responsibilities.

We take that gender-informed approach being very cognisant of the factors that are specific to women that lead to criminalisation in the first place.

And then we also have a holistic focus, so we are trying to assist them in dealing with those underlying issues, as well as the charges that are in front of us. So, we don’t just deal with the charges.

We try to deal with the whole person and address the issues that have led to the offending, so they can get out of the pathway towards criminalisation, and hopefully avoid imprisonment down the track.

As you’ve just mentioned you address the underlying issues causing your clients’ offending. The LACW model includes a wrap-around service, that can involve assistance after clients’ cases. How does that work? And what would you say its impact is?

It works by having in-house social workers and a case management team that assists the women in dealing with those underlying factors.

As lawyers, we recognise that we don’t necessarily have the connections to all of the services that are out there in the community that would assist our clients.

But, by having a specialist case management team within our service, we are then able to provide ongoing holistic case management, with our case managers making sure that they’re assisting our clients at every step along the way.

That’s whether they’re engaging with housing services, drug and alcohol support or trauma counselling. They really act as their advocates and make sure that they’re getting the most out of those services that they can. They’re persistent in their approach to those services.

It can be hugely impactful, especially when our client base can sometimes find mainstream service providers difficult to engage with, or they might not make it to appointments and fall off the radar, and then not get the most out of those services.

We’ve got case managers that will come in and advocate on their behalf, to make sure that those other services will provide as much help as they can.

In January, Yorta Yorta woman Veronica Marie Nelson Walker died in a Victorian prison after being remanded for only two days. She was a LACW client.

Indeed, a large portion of your clients are Aboriginal women. And the figures around the increasing numbers of First Nations women inmates in this country are hard to believe.

Between 1991 and 2017, the number of First Nations women being incarcerated in Australia increased by 250 percent.

In your understanding, what’s behind the steep increase in the number of First Nations women being incarcerated?

The fact that 30 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody we are still seeing Aboriginal women dying in Australian prisons is a national disgrace.

This underscores the fact that custody is not a safe place for women – especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women – and we must properly invest in community-based solutions, with a particular focus on safe and secure housing, that can provide alternatives to imprisonment.

If you look at the underlying factors driving women’s criminalisation, which we discussed earlier around poverty, family violence and parenting responsibilities without other support, all of these issues are exacerbated for First Nations women.

They’re most at risk of being victims of family violence, much more so than non-Aboriginal women. And again, in relation to poverty indicators and housing stability, all of those issues are exacerbated for First Nations women.

We still have a system where children are removed from First Nations mothers at much greater rates, than they are from non-Aboriginal women.

And it can be difficult for them to access the services to address these underlying issues. There are also issues for women in regional areas where these services just aren’t readily available.

It’s a combination of those factors, which are driving those shocking numbers in terms of the increase of imprisonment rates for Aboriginal women.

And lastly, the LACW has been open for four years. As mentioned earlier, you launched your centre in response to the growing number of women being incarcerated. How successful would you say you’ve been in achieving the centre’s aims over its time in operation?

On the ground, we are having an impact for the individual clients that we are working with. We’ve had women, who have been recidivist offenders over many years, in a much more stable place than they had been previously.

We’ve had women who without our support services would not have been housed within safe and secure housing, which then has a flow-on effect in terms of improving their prospects in engaging with other services and getting them out of the cycle of offending and imprisonment.

We are realistic about the size of our service and the impact that we can have. And we would really like to be having a much greater impact systemically, and we’re looking to do that in the future.

We’ve got some valuable partnerships that assist us in increasing the impact of our work. One of those is with the Centre for Innovative Justice, who we are collocated with. They’re with RMIT University.

That’s allowing us to feed in our experience with women on the ground into research policy work that they’re doing around women’s criminalisation.

We are also working through the Women Transforming Justice Project with the Fitzroy Legal Service and Flat Out. And again, that’s enabling us to feed into work at a more systemic level in terms of addressing some of those underlying issues that are driving women’s criminalisation.

On the ground, we are having an impact. We would like to increase that impact in coming years. And those partnerships that we have are a way that we can do that.

Photo credit: Matto Lucas

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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