With recidivism rates nudging 40%, it’s no wonder the Castlemaine Mail reports that Victorian prisons are groaning under the strain. In January the Productivity Commission noted that Victoria’s prison population and the rates of over-representation of Indigenous people within the prison system are also trending up.
In addition, the Victorian Ombudsman recently noted that there has been a two-fold increase in the number of prisoners being released without conditions, supervision or parole support. Without these safeguards, Victorians are denied the security of prisoners’ safe re-entry into the community.
These trends are the logical outcome of the previous government’s populist tough-on-crime policy. Unfortunately, these trends aren’t complemented by a commensurate drop in the rates of crime: the former government’s policy raison d’être. And to judge from the comments of the new Police and Corrections Minister, Wade Noonan, the Andrews government’s focus is on “managing the system as we have inherited it” rather than questioning the merits of tough-on-crime approaches to community safety.
While it is true that the Andrews government does have to manage the system it inherited, it can do more. It should look at evidence-based approaches such as justice reinvestment that improve community safety, reduce the burden on taxpayers, and reduce the pressures on a corrections system that consistently fails to rehabilitate prisoners (evidenced by increasing recidivism rates). Indeed, the Victorian Ombudsman is currently investigating our prison system’s rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners into society.
The Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres heads up Smart Justice, a coalition of more than 30 community organisations that is looking at smarter, evidence-based approaches to community safety and responses to crime. Smart Justice’s Senior Policy Advisor, Michelle McDonnell, notes that “there also needs to be an emphasis on preventing crime in the first place, on diverting offenders from the prison system where that’s consistent with community safety, and on closely examining sentencing, parole and bail laws that are contributing to the unsustainable rise in Victoria’s prison population.” We endorse these comments.
We also believe that it’s time to revisit the abolition of suspended sentences. The imprisonment of people guilty of minor offences who present no threat to the community serves no useful purpose other than to institutionalise offenders and to add to our swelling prison population, which now costs $500 million more to run than it did five years ago.
Image: Matteo Parrini cc via Flickr