In a continuation of the Victorian government’s increasingly tough on crime stance, state premier Daniel Andrews announced on Sunday that his party would be boosting police numbers by 20 percent over the next four years.
The $2 billion plan will see an additional 2,729 officers recruited, in a bid to counter the state’s rising crime rate. Of those recruited, 415 will be front-line and specialist family violence police and 42 new youth specialist officers will be trained to tackle Melbourne’s so-called youth crime wave.
In addition to the new recruits, four metropolitan and six regional police stations will be rebuilt.
The move comes after the state government already committed to fast-track an extra 406 new recruits in this year’s budget. And the Victorian Police Association have been calling for an additional 3,300 police officers to join the state’s 15,000 current officers over the next six years.
Victorian police chief commissioner Graham Ashton said at a press conference, “It represents the greatest boost to policing numbers that we’ve had in 163 years.” While the premier told reporters, “Every Victorian has the right to feel safe, and sadly many in our community do not feel safe at this time.”
Rising Victorian crime rates
Bucking the trend of declining crime rates in Australia, Victoria has seen a significant rise in certain crime categories.
Victoria police issued a warning in July this year, recommending people increase their home security in the face of a spate of violent burglaries and carjackings across the state.
The latest figures from Victoria’s Crimes Statistics Agency outline that over the last financial year there were 535,826 offences recorded by police, which is a 13.4 percent increase from the previous year. This equates to an offending rate of 8,851 offences per 100,000 people in the state.
The offence rate per 100,000 people has been increasing by 5.3 percent since 2011. And over the last financial year assault, aggravated burglary and theft have all been on the rise.
Despite public perception that Victoria is undergoing a youth crime crisis, the rates of youth crime have actually fallen overall. Crimes committed by people aged between 15 and 19 fell by 5 percent, and there was a 4 percent drop in the number of crimes committed by people under 25.
However, the number of aggravated burglaries committed by teenagers has tripled over the last year, and teen car thefts are up too. This has been attributed to a small group of serial reoffenders.
Calls for tougher sentencing
At the announcement of the police recruitment drive on Sunday, chief commissioner Ashton said that the whole criminal justice system needs to operate with the same objectives, including the police, the prison system, the courts and parole bodies.
Ashton implied that the courts needed get tougher with sentencing, as “there’s no point in having more police if the convicted offenders beat them back to the shopping mall.”
The repeat offenders
Much of the media attention given to the rise in Victorian crime rates has had a focus on crimes attributed to the Apex gang. Ten of the 34 people convicted over the Moomba riots in March this year were said to have suspected links to the gang.
Apex began in the Melbourne suburb of Dandenong two years ago. Besides communicating over social media, what led to a rise in the group’s numbers is that many of them have served time together in the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre: a correctional facility in the suburb of Parkville.
And this raises questions as to whether the current criminal justice system in Victoria is actually dealing with the root causes of crime and its prevention, or whether it’s simply serving to foster repeat offenders.
Juveniles in adult detention
Two riots broke out at the Parkville juvenile detention centre in mid-November this year. Inmates caused $2 million worth of damage. Victorian authorities responded to the riots by sending 15 of the youths involved to Barwon Prison: an adult maximum security facility, said to be the state’s toughest.
To send youth detainees into an adult prison is to place them in a system which has dramatically high rates of recidivism. Forty four percent of Victorian inmates return to prison within two years after release. And for those aged between 18 and 25, more than half of them return within 24 months.
To say, as the police chief commissioner did, that tougher sentencing along with more policing is the answer is to fly in the face of what’s already occurring.
The Australian criminal justice system is handing down harsher sentences and incarcerating more people than ever. It’s a system that’s actually producing “revolving door” criminals and to strengthen it can’t be the solution.
The European model
But there are alternatives to this tough on crime stance. In the Netherlands they have a focus on rehabilitation rather than a punitive justice system. Whilst inside, inmates are given specific rehabilitation programs tailored to their needs.
The result is that the crime rate in the Netherlands has been dropping on average by 0.9 percent per year in recent years, while recorded crime has decreased by a staggering 25 percent over the past eight years.
The abolition of police
And as for the police, there are grassroots movements in the States calling for the abolition of the institution and the creation of alternatives.
The institution of the police wasn’t invented in the United States or the United Kingdom until the mid-1800s.
And it wasn’t created to protect and serve the community or to stop rising crime. Authorities created the institution to deal with striking and mobilising workers, along with the perceived threat of a slave revolt in the south of the US.
Decades-long crusader for the abolition of prison and policing, Angela Davis, recently said at a Chicago lecture that it was time for new notions of security. “Why do we accept forms of security that are fundamentally grounded in violence? “she questioned. “Violence and security contradict each other.”
An example of an alternative to policing being practiced by Chicago community groups is the peace circle. These are based on Indigenous people’s premodern methods of conflict resolution and involve people meeting to discuss and resolve community disputes.
One of these circles run by a group called Circles and Ciphers provides a conflict resolution program for young men who’ve been to prison or in a gang. They hold meetings to mediate on violent situations and attendance is reserved for victims, perpetrators and their friends and families.
As the Australian authorities continue to focus on punitive measures, perhaps it’s time for community groups in this country to see how they can intervene and take rehabilitation matters into their own hands.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.