This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post Australia on 29 July 2016.
The recent Four Corners exposé of mistreatment of young people in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory shocked all Australians. The Prime Minister has correctly called a Royal Commission into the abuse.
Although the terms of reference for the review are quite narrow, Australia should take this incident as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to criminal justice more generally. Because the kids who suffer in abusive detention centres will have a tough time staying off the path to a life of crime, where they will join a growing number of their countrymen, and from which there is currently little chance of escaping given the way our criminal justice system operates.
We have a rapidly growing prison population. There are now more than 36,000 people in Australian prisons, up from less than 9,000 just 40 years ago. At 196 per 100,000 adults, Australia’s incarceration rate is at its highest level since just after Federation. So while Gillian Triggs is exaggerating when she says Australia has a “culture of detention“, there is a kernel of truth to her claim. We are using incarceration more and more.
Perhaps this expenditure could be justified if our criminal justice system was getting outstanding results. Unfortunately though, there is reason to believe that the growing use of incarceration is not preventing crime from rising. It is also not stopping people from becoming career criminals. 59 percent of adult prisoners have been incarcerated before. So not only is incarceration expensive, we are losing even more money in the long run by creating conditions that increase the chances of recidivism.
Public safety is the first and last goal of criminal justice. However, as the Four Corners report reveals, being a hawk on public safety should mean taking criminal justice reform seriously. Does anyone seriously think that these kids are more likely to become productive members of society after suffering this kind of abuse? As long as we intend to release those we place in prison or detention back into society, we need to care about what condition they will be in when they get out.
So we should consider whether everyone who is being locked up actually needs to be, and also what happens to offenders once they leave prison.
In 2013, the Senate held an inquiry into the value of Australia adopting a justice reinvestment model. Justice reinvestment is the idea that imprisoning fewer people saves money, which can be redirected to other programs aimed at reducing crime.
The inquiry went nowhere, largely because the scope of the proposed reinvestment was too wide. Many people seem to think that justice reinvestment should mean investing in community programs with only a tangential link to criminal justice, on the premise that crime is a result of social conditions rather than individual choice. This ideological understanding of crime will never form the basis of sound, much less popular, criminal justice reform.
Instead, justice reinvestment should mean strengthening probation, parole, and re-entry services, and the police. It should mean improving criminal justice, not abolishing it. The premise must be that individuals are responsible for their own choices, and the goal should be to facilitate and incentivise gainful employment. This how we limit recidivism and protect our communities.
Even though Aboriginal Australians are over-represented at all levels of the criminal justice system, it would be a mistake to focus reform efforts solely on this fact. Reforms should concentrate on the incarceration of nonviolent offenders — those guilty of property offences, drug offences, and regulatory offences. This focus is consistent with community safety and equality before the law, and will also benefit many Aboriginal Australians.
It is worth noting too that a justice reinvestment approach that strengthens the frontline of the criminal justice system is the model that best applies to the small, regional communities in which many Aboriginal Australians live.
The social and economic costs of Australia’s approach to incarceration are growing, and yet crime and recidivism are not dropping. There is therefore a prima facie case for reform that demands investigation. Put bluntly, the status quo is making us less safe, wasting our money, and destroying lives. This is a nationwide issue, calling for leadership at all levels of government. Criminal justice reform is a real opportunity to do some good for any politician with the courage to take it on.