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Victoria: on the move to become the ‘pr. . .

Victoria: on the move to become the ‘prison state’?

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Published on the VCOSS Voice on 16 May 2012.

Guest blog by Michelle McDonnell, Policy Officer at the Federation of Community Legal Centres – part of Victoria’s Smart Justice coalition.

Victoria’s number plates may proclaim it’s ‘on the move’ but the prison spending blow-out in this month’s state budget could mean it’s no longer ‘the place to be’ in terms of smarter justice policies, particularly compared to New South Wales which has previously outpaced us on prison numbers. The Baillieu Government’s budget announcement of a $500 million commitment to prison expansion is like watching a car crash in slow motion, with evidence showing that prison often fails to rehabilitate people and may increase the risk of reoffending. So in effect, we’re diverting investments in cost-effective initiatives that work in reducing crime to spending in the private prison industry which may, over time, contribute to an overall increase in crime.

The latest ABS statistics show that Victoria has about 110 people in prison for every 100,000 people on the outside, compared to a rate of 170 in New South Wales. But let’s look closer to see in what direction we’re heading. The imprisonment rate in Victoria increased by 44 per cent over the last 10 years and, now with the introduction of harsher sentencing under the Coalition Government, we’re looking at prison spending over the next decade exceeding $1 billion, with nearly $200 million operating expenditure on top of current costs. This is backed up by the dire warning in the latest Department of Justice Annual Report that ‘sentencing reform will be the main driver of growth in prison bed demand’.

New South Wales on the other hand is steering a change in direction in some of its criminal justice policies. Until recently it was locking up people at close to twice the rate of Victoria but that’s about to change, with three jails to close and a $50 million budget cut to corrective services.

What’s driving the downward trend in the prison population in New South Wales? The Coalition Government’s Attorney General Greg Smith, a former crown prosecutor who says he understands that there’s no point in building prisons just to house people who keep re-offending. So far he has presided over an 8 per cent drop in the number of people in prison that could save $26 million a year. Criminologist David Biles believes that it will only take five or six years for the Victorian imprisonment rate to overtake the New South Wales rate.

At Smart Justice we’re building a credible coalition of people and organisations like VCOSS to promote effective criminal justice polices that address the causes of crime.

One criminal justice policy worth considering is justice reinvestment. It’s a new approach in tackling the causes of crime and provides a viable option as Victoria’s prison expansion costs become unsustainable. It re-directs money spent on prisons to community-based initiatives which aim to address the underlying causes of crime, promising to cut crime and save money. It has real potential for ending the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the justice system. That’s why we support the Justice Reinvestment Campaign for Aboriginal young people which was launched in Sydney earlier this month.

It would be a shame if we ceded leadership on smart justice in Victoria.


PS from VCOSS Voice: see also interesting articles about Victoria’s prisons policies from the public health blog Croakey:

When will policy catch up with the science on drug prohibition?

What are the health implications of building more prisons?


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