Goal: Everyone is treated fairly under the law.
For Victorians to a have good life, their government must uphold their basic human rights. They need to feel protected, knowing they will receive fair and equal treatment by the police and courts. They need to trust their justice system will deal with the causes of criminal behaviour, and will ensure people don’t reoffend on leaving prison. But fragile human rights protections and inadequate access to legal help mean some people don’t get treated fairly.
Many Victorians face hardships like poverty, discrimination, family breakdown and homelessness, which have potential legal dimensions. Fast and responsive legal help can prevent problems escalating into crisis.
Punitive criminal justice approaches will not deliver a safe community and reduced crime. Victoria needs to adopt evidence-based approaches to addressing legal need and offending behaviour.
Instilling human rights
Human rights set a minimum standard for treating people fairly. They are the most basic benchmark for respecting people in a civilised and humane society. People facing disadvantage are most at risk of having their human rights violated. They can be evicted from their homes, denied basic health care when sick, or prevented from catching public transport to buy food, medicine or other necessities.
Include more human rights in the Charter
Victoria can strengthen human rights protections by including economic, social and cultural rights in the Human Rights Charter, like the rights to health care, housing, social security and adequate food. The Charter should also include an explicit right to Aboriginal self-determination. These rights often mean most to vulnerable people, because they protect access to the basic necessities of a good life. The Charter of Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 is helping many Victorians, especially those most vulnerable, by driving improvements in services and making governments more accountable when writing policies and laws.
Allow action on human rights abuses
Victoria can include a direct right of action108 in the Human Rights Charter, creating strong protections for Victorians by encouraging services to take rights into account when making decisions, preventing human rights violations. This will also combat perceptions the Charter is a ‘toothless tiger’, as people cannot currently take a human rights complaint alone to court.
Educate Victorians on human rights
Human rights can only be protected if everyone understands and respects them. Importantly, the Charter intends to foster cultural change across government and the community. The most recent Charter review recommended building a more enduring Victorian human rights culture, by strengthening the Charter’s operation and building community awareness. However, little progress on its recommendations has been made.
Since the Charter was enacted, momentum and awareness has reduced. Community workers need to understand the meaning and importance of human rights to do their jobs properly. Victorians should know their rights and be able to have them enforced. Funding a community-wide education program can help achieve these goals.
Strengthen police accountability
Over-policing and misuse of police power also contribute to poor justice outcomes for Victorians. Police who abuse the trust of Victorians and undermine the integrity of the justice system must be held accountable. Existing accountability mechanisms fail to change systemic behaviour or build community confidence in police. The Victorian Government should implement a system of independent investigation of police misconduct.
Ensuring people can get legal help
When people encounter problems in their lives, they often confront a complicated and bewildering legal system. Fixing legal problems quickly can stop them spiralling out of control. Early, professional legal help can prevent someone losing their home, being violently attacked, or losing their job.
Bolster community legal services
Victoria can invest in expanded free legal assistance to guide people through problems and ensure they get a fair hearing. Affordable, timely legal help might save a home from foreclosure, get a rental home repaired, protect a women from a violent partner, or stop discrimination or bullying at work.
Every year in Australia an estimated 500,000 people go without the legal help they need. Private lawyers can be expensive and intimidating. Victoria’s community legal centres, Aboriginal legal services and legal aid try to fill the gap, but cannot meet demand.
Community legal centres nationwide turned away 169,000 people in 2015-16, a third of whom had no suitable alternative. The small amounts of extra funds granted recently have been for short-term projects, and can’t sustain centres to meet demand in the future.
Victoria Legal Aid also has funding shortfalls and struggles to cater for everyone who needs their help. Legal aid, increasingly, is severely restricted, and goes mainly to people facing prison on criminal charges.
…restrictions on legal aid are now so severe that in many jurisdictions a substantial proportion of those living below the Henderson poverty line … will not satisfy the means test for legal aid eligibility.
Support the development and growth of health-justice partnerships
Health-justice partnerships put lawyers where people are already seeking help, such as local health or family violence services. Working together, legal and health professionals can identify and help with legal problems before they reach crisis point. Victoria has been leading the country in setting up health-justice partnerships. However, many are operating on short-term grants and may have to close once funding expires.
Making fines fair
The Victorian Government commonly uses fines to manage minor offences. In 2015-2016, three million fines were issued, raising about $700 million. But paying fines is harder on a low income. Unpaid fines can snowball, pushing people into a cycle of debt, poverty and criminal penalties.
Unclog courts by decriminalising toll fines
Unpaid road tolls are the largest source of fines, and the volume of toll fines is severely clogging courts. In part, this is because people can rapidly accrue fines: each unpaid toll can add up to $342 of debt. A driver can amass thousands of dollars of debt in a week.
Unpaid tolls should be a debt recovery issue between toll road companies and motorists. The Victorian Government should not be the debt collector for private companies, using measures that include threatening people with jail. Toll fee enforcement should be moved to a civil debt recovery system.
Make fines fairer by matching to income levels
A fine for forgetting to pay the train fare is more than $200, which is about 80 per cent of a single person’s weekly Newstart Allowance. Paying fines can mean not paying rent, school costs or energy bills or buying food. One fairer option would be introducing lower fines for concession card holders, reflecting their lower incomes. The concession penalty can be set at 50 per cent, in line with other concession rates. Additional enforcement fees could also be waived for concession card holders, to prevent infringement debt escalating quickly and give people a realistic chance of paying debts.
Keep rolling out options for people to work off debts
The Work and Development Permit Scheme allows eligible people to work off outstanding fines and debt by participating in volunteer work or agreed programs and treatment.
A foundation group of community organisations has been participating in the scheme since mid-2017. The scheme should be expanded to provide an equal chance for rural and regional Victorians to participate, and clarify eligibility and access.
Diverting young people from the justice system
Victoria’s justice system can act as a safety net and give young people a chance to turn their lives around. When young people get caught in the justice system, it is usually because of major problems in their lives
– at home, at school, or with disabilities or health problems. Being too quick to imprison them can simply entrench reoffending behaviour upon release.
Close youth prisons and invest in better diversion alternatives
The smart way to reduce youth crime is to work with young people, starting before they offend in the first place. First contact with the police or courts is a chance to divert young people into support and activity programs and devise successful future pathways. Communities are safer, and young people can avoid the potentially life-long stigma of a criminal record.
Once in the justice system, intensive training, therapy and rehabilitation for young people in detention and after release can prevent future criminal behaviour.
Victoria can do more to reach and engage a small number of young people committing repeated and serious offences. More intensive and tailored interventions are needed to steer these young people onto a better trajectory. The best way to protect the community is to invest in measures that prevent or interrupt the criminal pathways of these children, who might otherwise go on to commit a disproportionate amount of youth crime.
Keep the adult and youth justice systems separate
Keeping young people out of adult prisons dramatically reduces the risk of further crimes. Victoria’s ‘dual-track’ system keeps young offenders up to age 21 separate from adults. These separate systems have been essential in keeping crime rates low, by recognising young people’s developmental stages, vulnerability and potential for rehabilitation.
By reinstating the strong separation between the two systems, we can protect Victorians from greater risks of crime in the future.
Raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14
Children under 14 belong in school, not prison. At this age, children cannot fully understand the implications of their actions, and they lack total control over their behaviour. By imprisoning them, we risk causing more harm, including encouraging them to become chronic, long-term offenders. Children under the age of 14 should be supported through age-appropriate interventions, not imprisonment.
Building a corrections system that successfully rehabilitates people
The best way to keep Victorians safe and free to live good lives is by preventing crime from occurring. Taking a justice reinvestment approach focuses on investing in the communities prisoners come from, working with them on local, place-based solutions to the economic and social risk factors behind offending. Most of our prisoners have histories of trauma, abuse and poverty, with most not finishing high school, and many having mental health conditions or acquired brain injuries.
Victorians expect their government to take sensible, cost-effective, evidence-based approaches to justice that will protect them from harm. Simply sending more people to prison for longer does little to reduce crime levels or reoffending, and is extraordinarily expensive. We now spend more than $1 billion every year on prisons, which could be better spent preventing crime.
Slash re-offending rates
Victoria can tackle repeat offending by introducing a target to reduce recidivism by at least 15 per cent over 10 years. Nearly half of Victoria’s prisoners will return within two years. Other jurisdictions have introduced recidivism reduction targets to drive change. South Australia has committed to a 10 per cent reduction in reoffending target by 2020.
Help people leaving prison find homes and vocations
Effective transition support is one way to help people leaving prison and prevent reoffending. Too many people move straight from prison into homelessness, putting them at greater risk of reoffending, or of harm or even death. More support improves their chance to stay safe and out of prison. Existing transition programs are over-stretched and target only those at highest risk, or only give help for a month or two. A revamped service can link with people while still in prison, and continue to support them for at least 12 months afterwards. This occurs in the ACT, and has successfully reduced recidivism there.
Expand problem-solving courts across the state
Victoria can expand the Victorian Drug Court to Geelong, Sunshine and Gippsland, to keep people out of prison through treatment and rehabilitation. The Victorian Drug Court approach achieves a recidivism rate 34 per cent lower than mainstream courts. Similarly, offenders appearing before the Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC) are less likely to reoffend, and complete community orders more often than people in other courts, cutting Yarra area crime rates by 12 per cent in two years.
Reduce the number of women and Aboriginal people in prison
Victoria can also take targeted strategies to address the growing number of incarcerated women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, whose offences are often associated with poverty.
Most women in prison are mothers or primary carers of children. By locking them up for non-violent crimes, we are often sentencing their children as well: to the dislocation of moving homes and schools, the trauma of the child protection system and the risk of generational disadvantage that comes from having an incarcerated parent. Particular strategies can be targeted to Aboriginal women’s over-representation: in Victoria they are 17 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal women.