In recent years, Victoria’s ‘tough on crime’ approach has led to higher imprisonment rates, longer sentences, overcrowded prisons and growing prison expenditure. Meanwhile the community is not becoming any safer. Crime rates have not fallen and recidivism rates remain high, with people reoffending and returning to prison repeatedly.
The Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into the rehabilitation and reintegration of Victorian prisoners (and subsequent Ombudsman’s discussion paper) was prompted by this growth in prisoner numbers, concern about the high rate of reoffending and the cost to the Victorian community. The investigation aims to ensure prisoner sentences include appropriate rehabilitation and post-release support to help prevent further reoffending.
Victoria’s prisoners are overwhelmingly people who have faced significant disadvantage in their lives. They generally have low levels of educational attainment, literacy and employment before entering prison. Many have histories of abuse, mental illness and substance use.
The VCOSS submission to the Ombudsman’s discussion paper focuses on three cohorts of prisoners who face multiple and complex layers of disadvantage; women, Aboriginal people and people with disabilities. As outlined in the VCOSS submission:
- Up to 87% of women in prison have been sexually, physically or emotionally abused. Many face homelessness, poverty, mental illness and violence.
- About 60% of people who enter prison have a mental or cognitive disability, and they tend to reoffend and return to prison more rapidly than people without a disability.
- Aboriginal Victorians are imprisoned at more than 10 times the rate of non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal women are the fastest growing cohort of prisoners in Victoria. High Aboriginal imprisonment rates are linked to the ongoing gap in health, educational, employment and social outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, and the ongoing impacts of Aboriginal dispossession and marginalisation.
The Ombudsman’s discussion paper states “a common observation is that when systems come under stress, these groups [women and indigenous prisoners] seem to bear a disproportionate amount of the burden” (p. 2).
Victoria needs a comprehensive strategy that focuses specifically on the unique needs of vulnerable groups to help prevent further reoffending.
The VCOSS submission makes a range of recommendations, including:
- The need for a whole-of-government approach to reforming the justice system and reducing reoffending rates.
- A more strategic and comprehensive approach to prison program planning and delivery that gives all prisoners equal access to evidence-based, high quality programs.
- Gender and culturally specific programs and post-release support for women, Aboriginal people and people with disabilities.
- Adoption of a staged release program, especially for women who are unable to access Victoria’s existing transitional support facility.
- The need to provide longer term, deeper level support to people leaving prison.
- The need to focus on risk factors for reoffending, including maximising a person’s chances of employment, finding stable, supported accommodation and relationships with family and community.
- Collection and publication of more comprehensive data about the prison population and outcomes for people who are in or have recently left prison.
It is time for a community-wide conversation about our criminal justice system; about how we prevent people from committing crimes and how prison can be an opportunity to rehabilitate offenders so they can go on to become contributing members of society. VCOSS values this opportunity to provide feedback on the operation of the criminal justice system through our submission, and hopes to work with the Victorian Ombudsman further to help reshape the justice system to better meet the needs of prisoners and the community.