There has been a doubling of inmates in prison over the past 30 years, with Indigenous and young people being amongst the groups most affected by the constant move towards punitive measures.
But the prison system has attracted a lot of criticism in recent years, with opponents arguing that it comes at a high cost to taxpayers whilst doing little to break the cycle of offending.
Some even suggest that prison acts as a ‘training ground’ for inmates to learn new criminal skills.
Such criticism has led policy makers, community groups and other organisations to develop new methods for tackling offending, many of which focus on addressing the socio-economic reasons behind crime.
Justice Reinvestment is an initiative that aims to shift spending away from the prison system and towards addressing the underlying factors behind criminal conduct.
It has already been implemented with great success in some US states, and is currently being trialled in several regional centres within New South Wales.
What is Justice Reinvestment?
Justice Reinvestment involves using statistical and other data to identify individuals and communities who have a greater risk of offending.
By analysing the demographics and characteristics of high-risk groups in particular areas, organisations backing the Justice Reinvestment program can develop tailor-made programs, services and other support mechanisms to assist those communities and steer people away from the criminal justice system.
It involves a community-based approach – working alongside community groups to better understand the factors that drive crime and thereby determine how funding can best be spent to address those problems.
For instance, some Justice Reinvestment programs have reduced the likelihood of people engaging in crime by:
- increasing community spending on early childhood education,
- developing programs that encourage young people to attend school, and
- providing support and assistance to disadvantaged people to enable them to gain stable employment and housing.
In Australia, it is hoped that such initiatives will help address the appalling overrepresentation of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders within the criminal justice system, particularly youths.
While Indigenous people comprise just 2.2% of the total population, they represent more than 50% of youths held in custody.
And it costs the taxpayer up to a whopping $650 to keep each young person in custody for a single day!
Proponents of Justice Reinvestment argue that this money is better spent in developing long-term solutions which strengthen communities and encourage people to learn lifelong skills to assist them in the future.
Targets are set to ascertain any particular program’s success in terms of a reducing crime, and spending is monitored, accounted for and regularly audited.
It is hoped that data collected from Justice Investment initiatives will be used to shape government policy and to similarly divert spending towards addressing the underlying causes of crime, rather than throwing money at the prison system.
How has it worked elsewhere?
Australia’s Justice Reinvestment program is built upon a program implemented with great success in the United States.
In the USA, Justice Reinvestment has been implemented in a total of 30 states.
In Travis County in Texas, the a shortage of adequate public housing was recognised as a driving force to crime for many years.
The Justice Reinvestment program there funnelled funding away from the prison system and into appropriate housing.
This involved a co-ordinated effort between various community organisations and bodies, such as county sheriffs, courts, health services and housing advocates in order to provide housing to former prisoners and support them in reintegrating within the community.
Together with complementary educational and support initiatives, the County has seen a substantial drop in rates of reoffending.
Meanwhile in Australia, a research project is currently being conducted by leading universities to examine the likely effectiveness of similar ‘needs-based’ programs here.
In Cowra, a town in central western New South Wales, a team led by Dr Jill Guthrie from the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at ANU has focussed on identifying factors which could reduce incarceration in the area.
This ongoing 3 year project has involved identifying measures to encourage youth involvement within the community and developing programs to prevent youth from coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
In Bourke, a north-western New South Wales town famed for its high crime rates, a group of community based organisations has banded together to trial a justice reinvestment program in the community over the next two years.
The program aims to address the entrenched disadvantage suffered by Indigenous persons by developing an accountability framework, as well as a mechanism to ensure that support programs and services are continued into the future.
Thus far, the programs have apparently been well received by policy makers and communities.
Hopefully, this positive reception will see programs being implemented across the country in the near future and result in the reduction in incarceration rates.
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