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By Emma O'Neill.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 5 May 2017.
The 2017 Victorian Budget includes some solid initiatives to help create a more equitable, accessible justice system.
VCOSS welcomes the funding boost for Victoria Legal Aid and community legal services, expanded prison-based alcohol and drug treatment programs and post-release support, and an additional 960 places in alcohol and drug treatment programs for people on community corrections orders.
We also welcome investment in the Children’s Court Fast Track Remand Court, which will continue following a 2016 trial. As of January 2017, nearly 50 per cent of young people in detention were on remand, waiting for their hearing dates and not always receiving the help they need.
VCOSS particularly applauds significant funding for mental health services in the justice system. Forty per cent of Victorian prisoners have a mental health condition. This investment will provide much-needed treatment and help reduce reoffending.
Tempering these welcome initiatives, the 2017 budget directs $288m to building a new ‘supermax’ youth justice facility. Along with police funding, this is one of the largest justice investments in the budget. The supermax funding represents a missed opportunity for creating a world-class youth justice system that reduces disadvantage and keeps the community safe.
Preferable investments include early intervention and crime prevention measures for at-risk young people, diversion schemes, intensive case management, and improved staffing, facilities and therapeutic programs for young people in detention.
Legal services for people on low incomes
This additional funding will help more people access community legal services to deal with issues relating to housing, employment, fines and other problems. Increased funding to Victoria Legal Aid will allow more children and young people to access legal services.
Cost: $12.4m in 2017 – 18 ($29.5m over four years)
Prisoner rehabilitation programs
In-prison and post-release programs will help offenders tackle alcohol and drug problems and reduce the risk of reoffending.
Cost: $5.4m in 2017 – 18 ($41.1m over four years)
Alcohol and drug treatment for people on community corrections orders
The additional 960 treatment places will help people address the underlying causes of their offending.
Cost: $7.5m in 2017 – 18 ($34.8m over four years) (NB: this package includes funding for other initiatives as well)
Children’s Court Fast Track Remand Court
The Fast Track Remand Court will allow cases to be heard sooner and help young people faster access any treatment and rehabilitative programs they need. It will help young people earlier exit potentially damaging detention environments and ease the pressure inside youth justice centres.
Cost: $1.7m in 2017 – 18 ($3.4m over two years)
Mental health services in the justice system
This major initiative will provide a range of services, including:
Forensic mental health beds
Prisoners requiring intensive mental health treatment in specialised environments will have access to additional forensic mental health beds.
Cost: $40m in 2017/18
Additional funding for existing youth justice facilities
The Parkville and Malmsbury youth justice facilities will be upgraded, and government will continue to operate the youth justice centre at Barwon Prison.
Cost: $72m over two years
Provide more ‘throughcare’ to people leaving prison
The Victorian government can help people avoid returning to prison by assisting them to find appropriate housing, healthcare and employment on leaving. Unstable or inappropriate housing dramatically heightens the risk of people returning to prison soon after release.
Strengthen diversion approaches
The Victorian government can divert young Aboriginal people from the criminal justice system by funding a Koori youth cautioning project for less serious offending. This would build on successful pilot schemes in Mildura and Morwell that increased cautioning rates for Aboriginal young people and decreased future police contact rates.
Young people can also be steered away from the justice system by enshrining successful youth division programs in legislation, providing greater certainty for these programs.
Provide women leaving prison with transitional beds
The Judy Lazarus Transition Centre helps male prisoners nearing release with the skills needed to reintegrate into the community, focusing on employment, accommodation, life skills and family relationships. These programs reduce the risk of reoffending and increase likelihood of finding work. The Victorian government could provide these benefits to female prisoners, too, by making a similar facility available to women leaving prison.
Expand the Drug Court and other problem-solving courts
VCOSS applauds the recent expansion of the Drug Court to Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, but is now looking for the Drug Court to be extended to regional areas in future.