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‘Justice reinvestment’ is the proven approach so why not use it?

‘Justice reinvestment’ is the lingo used to describe a policy concept that involves re-directing money that would normally be spent on prisons towards local, community-based initiatives that prevent people from getting mixed up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

But reinvestment is a strange term. Governments aren’t exactly making profits that they might reinvest.

A better way to think of it is government spending money on initiatives to avoid huge future costs further down the track. Think of it like spending on car maintenance instead of repairs when the vehicle breaks down.

That’s only half the story though. What early, and targeted, investment in local initiatives also does is strengthen communities.

How do we know communities are strong? For starters, there’s less crime. There are better education and health outcomes for the kids and families who live there. There’s the possibility of breaking generational cycles of criminal conduct and drug and alcohol misuse.

Investing in building stronger communities is really what justice reinvestment is all about. It’s about not waiting until it’s too late to help young people and adults who are doing it tough and need some support and guidance to keep out of trouble.

This isn’t abstract theory, it’s a proven approach.

The Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project in Bourke, New South Wales, is one of the most successful examples of justice reinvestment. Historically, the town has had crime rates well above the NSW average, and consistently experiences the highest recorded crime rates in NSW for domestic violence, sexual assault and breach of bail.

In Bourke, young Aboriginal people make up 2 per cent of the local population but represent half of the youth prison population.

The town’s justice reinvestment program started in 2013 after concerned Aboriginal residents approached the Australian Human Rights Commission and the not-for-profit group Just Reinvest NSW.

The program they developed consists of a wide range of activities undertaken by different organisations working in partnership. At its core, there are three primary ‘circuit breaker’ approaches adopted by participants to make a difference.

These include:

  • An increased use of warnings by local police, engagement of the Magistrates Court around alternative options, community based sentencing and increased use of Youth Justice Conference youth workers.
  • The introduction of ‘warrant clinics’ to allow people who are issued with a warrant to meet with a lawyer, community corrections officer or ‘Youth Off the Streets’ representative who assists them with court applications.
  • Drivers’ programs, education programs and assistance to young people trying to obtain their licence.

After five years, the results have been impressive.

Incidences of domestic violence have dropped by about a quarter and reoffending has also been curbed. A third more young people are finishing high school. Other results include:

  • a 38% reduction in charges across the top five juvenile offence categories
  • a 14% reduction in bail breaches
  • a 42% reduction in days spent in custody

The consulting firm KPMG estimates the program has saved the justice system and Bourke region millions of dollars.

There are a few key principles that underpin why the Maranguka approach works so well.

Programs must be local. They must involve community members. And they must be data-driven, to properly target issues that are specific to the community.

Perhaps most importantly, community members must work together to create change.

Justice reinvestment is not about throwing money at an issue and hoping it goes away. It’s about providing local communities with the resources, time and space to come together and build resilience and cohesion to make the local area safer, smarter and healthier.

No matter what you call it, investing in communities works.

It’s a stark contrast to spending millions of dollars on corrective services, child prisons and other punitive ‘juvenile justice’ measures, which have been shown not to work: a 2015 Ombudsman’s report found that half of the people locked up in Victoria’s prisons come from just 6 per cent of postcodes.

The Victorian Government should cast its eyes north to Bourke for an example of what works, and fund a place-based trial targeting Victorian areas of vulnerability. This is an opportunity to increase community safety across the state and stop people from entering the criminal justice system to begin with.