Transformative justice

You are reading Chapter 4 of 'Delivering Fairness', 2019 VCOSS Budget Submission

A fair society is founded on an impartial justice system that targets the causes of crime, provides equal access and protects everyone’s rights.

We can re-orient our justice system to prevent crime and stop it re-occurring. Strategic, community-driven investment in early intervention, prevention and diversion reduces crime and strengthens local communities.

If there’s less crime, there’s less imprisonment. It costs $110,000 per year to lock someone up in prison. Helping someone reform in the community makes them less likely to re-offend,[1] and prevents them getting trapped in the quicksand of the criminal justice system.

Spending billions of dollars on prisons won’t reduce crime or deliver safer communities. Victoria can adopt evidence-based approaches to legal need and offending behaviour, and embrace strategies that work.

 

 Replace child prisons with better alternatives

Re-direct resources to diversionary services and prevention programs for young people

The Victorian Government can build a world-class youth justice system that diverts young people from prison into education and jobs. By supporting young people with intensive, therapeutic community interventions, we can return Victoria to a nation-leading youth justice approach.

Young people who come into contact with the justice system have often experienced significant disadvantage. Most come from poverty and have experienced trauma and neglect. Many are known to the child protection system long before they are known to police.

Building more prisons for these children, and criminalising their behaviour with unfair policies and legislation, pushes them to become career criminals. Our child prisons don’t rehabilitate people, with no improvement in future offending after young people leave.[2]

Diverting young people from entering the justice system in the first place, and investing in community-based drug and alcohol, mental health and education support, is the most effective solution to make communities safer.[3] Funding for innovative approaches can expand diversion and prevention activities, and establish effectiveness of successful programs.

If the Victorian Government insists on detaining children and young people, their needs must be individually assessed, and matching education and trauma-informed rehabilitation delivered. This gives young people the opportunity to leave the criminal justice system and succeed in the community.

 

 Better support people leaving prison

Provide access to housing and services to people leaving prison to stop re-offending

Almost every prisoner will return to community life. To lead successful, productive lives in the community, people leaving prison need support before and long after they leave. In particular, this support can focus on finding and maintaining housing, sustaining their mental health, and treating problem drug and alcohol use.

A third of people leaving prison expect to be homeless,[4] making them more likely to re-offend.[5] Prisoners are four times more likely to die in the first six months of release than after a year.[6] Effective post-release support gives people the best chance to stay alive and transition towards a productive, law-abiding life.

The Victorian Government can ensure community and health services engage with prisoners long before they leave. They can plan a successful reintegration with a continuous, stable network of supports protecting against future re-offending. Aboriginal prisoners, especially women, need extra support to maintain a connection to country and culture while in prison.

Currently, transition programs are under-resourced, only target the highest-risk prisoners, and only support people for a couple of months. Post-release support services can be expanded to more people, and assist for up to a year after release.

 

 Keep toll debts out of courts

Change the road toll system to stop gouging the public

Toll road fines are clogging up Victoria’s courts. They are the most common charges heard in the Magistrates Court. The Royal Commission into Family Violence found valuable court time is wasted with toll fine charges, taking time from priority matters like family violence.[7]

Victorians have clocked up almost $700 million in outstanding fines, because excessive fees can magnify the original toll by 83,000 per cent.[8] Owing thousands of dollars for not paying tolls worth a few dollars is ridiculously disproportionate, and causes people real anxiety and financial hardship. It fuels community disrespect for tolling systems[9] and drags out fine disputes.

Victoria can take a new, more sensible approach to toll fines. Courts can be unclogged by reconciling unpaid debts through civil proceedings, rather than using courts to enforce excessive fines. Paying tolls can be made easier.

 

 Fund community justice partnerships

Embed community lawyers in local services to improve access to justice

People most vulnerable to legal problems often have fewer skills and resources to deal with them without assistance. This means that help is often delayed and only sought at crisis-point.[10] The Victorian Government can ease justice system pressure and help people experiencing vulnerability get legal advice.

Community justice partnerships put lawyers into places where people can access them easily during their everyday lives, such as community health services, family violence services or schools. People experiencing legal problems are more likely to confide in a GP, a social worker or their teacher than go to a lawyer.

Embedding lawyers in community settings gives people a chance to address their legal needs before they spiral out of control. It means non-legal professionals receiving information from someone can work with lawyers to jointly address that person’s needs.

Women found it empowering and helpful to access information and legal advice in healthcare settings.[11]

Victoria has been a trailblazer for community justice partnerships, particularly in health settings like hospitals. While health justice partnerships are now more common, early intervention partnerships between legal assistance and other social services yield similar positive outcomes, including with housing and homelessness services and specialist family violence services.[12]

 

 Further strategies

Create more specialist problem-solving and diversionary courts

The Victorian Government can invest in more specialist problem-solving and diversionary courts to reduce crime and prisoner numbers. Where traditional approaches fail, problem-solving courts tackle behaviours causing offending, and they work: Drug Court recidivism rates are 34 per cent lower,[13] and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre has significantly improved community order compliance and reduced recidivism.[14]

Raise the age of criminal culpability to 14

In Victoria, primary school age children as young as 10 can be sentenced to jail time. Sending children to prison doesn’t work to keep communities safe, and it causes harm and trauma. The Victorian Government can raise the age of criminal culpability to 14, and introduce more effective age-appropriate interventions for children who come into contact with the justice system.

Expand community-based treatment services

Community-based mental health and drug and alcohol treatment is the cornerstone of preventing crime and keeping people out of prison. Funding treatment services for people on parole or community-based orders helps prevent them re-offending. Extra services can adopt place-based approaches to deal with geographically specific problems and build community resilience.

Set a recidivism reduction target

Victoria’s recidivism rate has increased every year for five years. Prisons can be recalibrated to effectively rehabilitate people serving sentences. The Victorian Government can set a target to reduce reoffending by 15 per cent. Setting a target helps maintain momentum and encourages collaboration across government.

Strengthen economic and social rights

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights can be strengthened to protect vulnerable Victorians’ economic and social rights. Access to healthcare, housing and education can be formalised in the Charter as inalienable human rights. The Charter can have better real-world impact if people can take legal action when their rights are breached.

Reduce Aboriginal prisoner numbers

Aboriginal people are imprisoned at 12 times the rate of other Victorians[15] – 19 times for Aboriginal women.[16] The Victorian Government can fund Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and specialist services, such as the Balit Ngulu Aboriginal youth legal service, to help reduce growing numbers of Aboriginal people being incarcerated.

Improve support for people with a disability in the justice system

People with disability are over-represented across the criminal justice system, particularly in detention. There is not enough specialist disability support. Early identification of a person’s disability after justice system contact can ensure appropriate, timely treatment and support. Enhanced diversion and community-based options can also prevent unnecessary imprisonment.

Accelerate the Work and Development Permit Scheme roll-out

The Work and Development Permit Scheme allows people facing hardship to pay off debts with community service. The Victorian Government can roll out statewide.

 

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Artwork by artist Jacob Komesaroff. Follow on Instagram @jkomments