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Keep Victorians safe with a more effective justice system

Keep Victorians safe with a more effective justice system banner imageVictoria needs to be smart on crime and tough on its causes. This means adopting a justice reinvestment approach that combats the disadvantage pushing some people towards crime, new policies to stop people–especially young people–being entrenched in our prison system, and an increased focus on diversion, support and rehabilitation.

The best way to keep Victorians safe is to stop crimes before they occur by addressing the underlying factors that drive offending and ensuring people don’t become trapped in a cycle of disadvantage and criminal activity.

Victorians expect a great deal from our justice system. We want it to guarantee community safety but also ensure all people are treated fairly, proportionately and compassionately before the law.

VCOSS believes the justice system is most effective when these elements are well-balanced. By adopting policies that appear to be ‘tough on crime’, the Victorian Government risks embracing policies that undermine rehabilitation and actually make Victorians less safe.

Replace child prisons with better alternatives

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  • Commit to closing Victoria’s child prisons over the long term.
  • Introduce a new system of youth justice, based on diversion, rehabilitation and intensive community support.


Overwhelmingly, young people in the justice system have experienced significant disadvantage. They are the children we, as a society, have either failed or forgotten.

Most come from a life of poverty, and many have spent time in the child protection system, have endured trauma and neglect, experienced mental illness or faced drug and alcohol problems. Aboriginal children and those with intellectual disabilities in particular are dramatically over-represented in child prisons.

VCOSS is concerned that in response to high profile problems at the Malmsbury and Parkville Youth Justice Facilities, the Victorian Government is adopting policies that don’t enhance community safety, but work against rehabilitation for young people.

Plans to build an expansive youth prison in Melbourne’s west, send children to adult courts and sentence them to longer jail terms are recent examples of policies that evidence shows us will not work. Far from deterring children from committing crime, such measures will actually cause more trauma and place them at risk of becoming chronic, long-term offenders.

The Victorian Government should develop a long-term plan to shut down child prisons, and build a truly effective, modern and therapeutic youth justice system based on community interventions and rehabilitation, including more diversion, police cautioning and intensive support programs.

As Victoria’s Sentencing Advisory Council states:

“The best way to protect the community is to invest in measures that prevent or interrupt the criminal pathways of children who would otherwise go on to commit a disproportionately high volume of youth crime.

“Measures such as enhanced early intervention and resources to rehabilitate young offenders are the best way to steer at-risk children away from a life of crime and protect the community in the long term.”

Inaction is not an option. The 2017 Ogloff-Armytage review described the current youth justice system as “in crisis”, lacking purpose, focus and coordination. It said there was too much focus on detention and urged a significant structural and cultural overhaul.

VCOSS agrees with this analysis and supports the review’s recommendations for upskilling the workforce, preserving the dual track system separating youth justice from the adult justice system, expanding diversion and community-based interventions, and developing a new Youth Justice Strategic Plan.

Missouri closes child prison

The US state of Missouri provides a model for change. From the early 1980s, Missouri began closing down child prisons and replacing them with small, home-like facilities based in local communities and with a strong focus on education.

In Missouri, about 30 per cent of young people reoffend within three years. The rate in Australia is more than 75 per cent.


Better support people leaving prison

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  • Increase funding for transition support in prisons, from early in a person’s sentence to well after they return to the community.


Most prisoners will eventually be released back into the community. Successful reintegration and rehabilitation is crucial to keep the community safe, prevent the person from reoffending and ensure they can live a peaceful and productive life.

The Victorian Government can help people released from prison transition smoothly back to the community by investing in extended supports that begin when they are still incarcerated.

The more support a person has, the better their chances of staying out of prison. Ideally community and health services would start working with prisoners long before they leave. They can provide stability and build strong, trusting relationships that act as a protective factor against reoffending.

Special attention must be paid to Aboriginal women, who are the fastest growing group in Victorian prisons. Most of these women have histories of family violence, abuse and intergenerational trauma. They require additional assistance to maintain a connection to country, culture and family while in prison, to help with their wellbeing, mental health and eventual reintegration.

With only limited official transitional support available in Victoria, most people have to arrange their own housing, treatment and support when they leave. This is far from ideal. A third of people leaving prison expect to be homeless or in emergency accommodation. This approach does not support effective rehabilitation for Victorians leaving custody or promote community safety.

Comprehensive support is already offered in other jurisdictions. The ACT Government supports people for 12 months after they leave prison, including helping them find a place to live, access mental health counselling and undergo alcohol and drug treatment, if required.

The program has reduced recidivism, with participants reporting increased self-esteem, improved confidence, a greater quality of life and an enhanced ability to achieve goals.

Trevor’s story

Trevor is 48 years old, Aboriginal, and was a client of the ACT Extended Throughcare Program for seven months. He has been in and out of custody for most of his adult life.

The program provided Trevor with accommodation and material items such as furniture, clothes and transport, as well as practical support such as driving lessons, help finding a job, counselling, Aboriginal cultural support and legal assistance.

The key to Trevor’s support was the speed with which it was instituted, especially the housing, which he was able to move into three weeks after being released. This rapid stability provided the platform for Trevor and his family to focus on other areas that in turn further increased their stability, such as seeking employment, settling his daughter into school and building his relationship with her, as well as forming positive social connections.

Trevor was adamant that for the program to be successful, ex-offenders had to be prepared to make changes and help themselves. He said it had taken him a long time to “wake up”, and that this may not have occurred without the help of the program. He commented on the fact that the program staff established trust with him early in the process by following through on what they said.

Trevor’s wife said the support had helped the whole family: “He was so institutionalised and this is the first time ever that I’ve had any support with Trevor when he’s got out. He usually lasts about three months.”

Support more health justice partnerships

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  • Fund community legal centres and health services to develop ‘health justice partnerships’.


Health justice partnerships put community lawyers where people are already accessing support, like community health services, hospitals or family violence services. People experiencing legal problems are already more likely to confide in a GP or social worker than a lawyer.

When a lawyer is part of the healthcare team, healthcare professionals are better equipped to spot a legal problem and have confidence there is someone nearby who can help resolve it. Because legal problems can affect health, patients also receive better, more holistic healthcare. Working together, legal and healthcare professionals can better identify and respond to the legal and social issues that make it hard to be healthy – and stop existing problems from reaching crisis point.

For example, health justice partnerships can:

  • work with landlords to make housing repairs that improve health, such as treating mould or adding handrails
  • help people with accumulated fines or debt – money problems can cause anxiety or prevent people buying prescriptions or making co-payments
  • advise on legal needs that can emerge with illness, such as wills, powers of attorney and accessing superannuation.

Victorians facing marginalisation or disadvantage experience legal problems at higher rates than the general community. Groups particularly affected include people with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people experiencing homelessness and single parents. For these groups, it is often harder to seek help, and is difficult for the mainstream legal system to proactively find and assist them. This can mean a simple legal issue quickly spirals out of control.

The Victorian Government can help people with legal issues identify and solve their problems quickly by funding the development and delivery of health justice partnerships.

Jana’s story

Jana’s abusive partner made her stay in the family home unless she was attending medical appointments.

Her doctor was able to learn of Jana’s abuse during a consultation and introduce her to the medical centre’s in-house lawyer and family violence advocate, who were able to advise Jana about her options.

The doctor also provided Jana with a medical certificate to show her partner she had been at a medical appointment.

Further strategies


Expand problem-solving courts

The Victorian Government can help people address their offending and drug and alcohol issues by expanding problem-solving courts, including the Victorian Drug Court and the Family Drug Treatment Court. Problem-solving courts are designed to tackle specific behaviours, where traditional justice system approaches have not worked. They usually focus more on treatment and rehabilitation than punishment.

The Victorian Drug Court provides a comprehensive, collaborative approach to drug dependence and related crime. The two-year recidivism rate for the Drug Court is 34 per cent lower than the mainstream justice system. The Family Drug Treatment Court works with parents whose drug addiction has played a significant part in their child protection involvement, to give them the best chance of rehabilitation and family reunification.

Victorians would benefit from both courts being expanded across the entire state.


Introduce recidivism reduction targets

Victoria’s recidivism rate is high, with 43 per cent of people returning to prison within two years. The Victorian Government should consider setting itself a target to reduce reoffending by 15 per cent.

Several jurisdictions have had success in reducing reoffending rates by introducing targets. For example, since introducing reoffending reduction targets in 2011, New Zealand has achieved a four per cent reduction in the reoffending rate, to 29 per cent.

Setting a target helps maintain momentum and encourages a collaborative cross-government approach.


Expand the Fast Track Youth Remand Court

The Victorian Government can help young people get the right support and reduce pressure on the youth detention system by expanding the Fast Track Youth Remand Court across the state. About half of the young people in youth detention facilities across Victoria have not been sentenced for a crime. Young people on remand can’t access the range of support services, education and rehabilitative programs available to sentenced young people.

In 2017 the Children’s Court of Victoria established a new Fast Track Remand Court in Melbourne to deal with children’s criminal charges in a timelier way. Pressure on the system could be further relieved by establishing similar courts at other Children’s Court locations.


Stop the criminal prosecution of young children

Victorian law currently allows children as young as 10 to be charged with crimes, but at this age a child cannot fully understand the severity of their actions and lacks total control of their behaviour.

Young children accused of crimes at this age are also generally experiencing some type of trauma or disadvantage. Involvement in the criminal justice system at a young age risks causing more harm, including encouraging children to become chronic, long-term offenders.

The United Nations advises that age 10 is far too young for children to be held criminally culpable. The Victorian Government can help change the path of at-risk children by raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14. By maintaining the age of criminal responsibility at 10, Victoria is out of step with international best practice and human rights standards.

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