What do we really mean when we talk about ‘justice’?  Justice and Human Rights

What do we really mean when we talk about ‘justice’? 

Too often when people talk about justice what they actually mean is punishment.

How can we be tougher, harsher or more punitive?

How can we send offenders a message or teach them a lesson?

It’s this kind of rhetoric that leads to regressive and dangerous policies like over-policing, racial profiling and mandatory sentencing, and fuels the trend of sucking people into the quicksand of the prison system rather than keeping them at a safe distance.

We need to abandon the flawed and out-dated notion of being ‘tough’ on crime and embrace a better concept; being smart on justice.

A cornerstone of smart justice is crime prevention, and a recognition that strong and vibrant communities will do more to prevent crime than any number of ‘cops on the beat’.

Crime prevention approaches incorporate community development, like providing young people with a support network, giving vulnerable or at-risk kids the help they need to stay in school during the ages where they’re at risk of being pulled into offending.

The justice system can also prevent crime and reoffending, as we’ve seen with the problem-solving courts; for instance, drug courts and Koori courts. These are modelled so that where people do offend and come into contact with the system, it acts as a positive intervention: a trampoline approach, bringing people in on one side of the system and spring-boarding them in a better direction out the other side.

Sometimes that redirection might involve the justice system linking people with the health and social supports they need to address issues underlying their offending – whether that be alcohol and other drug supports, or housing, social work, mental health or disability supports.

Rather than trapping people in a cycle of incarceration, it makes much more sense for individuals, families and whole communities to keep people safe and well and outside of prison.

Rather than trapping people in a cycle of incarceration, it makes much more sense for individuals, families and whole communities to keep people safe and well and outside of prison.

The good news is the Andrews Government has taken some positive steps in this direction: with Koori Court lists, a specialist family violence court, and some effective rehabilitative justice programs across the state.  And with the design of the new Victorian Crime Prevention strategy well underway, you can feel the rhetoric shifting.

But Victoria must stay the course, and expand programs that have already been shown to work.

For instance, the Jesuit Social Services’ Barreng Moorop program, which is delivered in some parts of Melbourne, focuses on diverting young Aboriginal people away from the justice system by addressing the underlying issues that feed into their offending behaviour.

It works in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency to deliver a culturally responsive service focused on meaningful engagement, building trust and connecting children to community and culture to strengthen their Aboriginal identity.

The program has so far supported 26 young people and their families, helping kids stay engaged in education and out of the justice system.

This is a great example of both a crime prevention program, and an opportunity to ‘scale up’ and make better use of current initiatives. The Barreng Moorop model could be extended throughout Victoria, to provide a whole-of-family approach in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

More focus on and funding for programs like this will keep more kids healthy, in school and out of jail, as well as saving money and making communities stronger and safer.


This call to become smarter on justice and focus on crime prevention appears in A State Of Wellbeing, VCOSS’s formal submission to the Victorian Government ahead of the 2020 state budget.