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Opinion: Justice system unbalanced

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Cite as: September 2013 87 (9) LIJ, p.29

The boom in policing and prisons at a time when other areas of the justice system are struggling with the increased demand creates a self-perpetuating crisis.

State governments of both persuasions have been eagerly resourcing law enforcement bodies with the current targets to increase police by 1700 by 2014 and build a new prison by 2017. In 2012-13, the state government funded the development of an additional 500 beds through the Victorian prison system and the 2013-14 budget provides $131 million for 357 additional prison beds. There are downstream ramifications of these resourcing choices, with the basic challenge being the imbalance this creates in service provision.

It is a basic premise that if more police are employed, more individuals will be apprehended who will progress through the justice system. A finely tuned and well balanced justice system would ensure that there is a smooth transition through the legal processes and an absence of bottlenecks. Lamentably, this is not the case given the supply/demand imbalance at Victoria Legal Aid (VLA). Even though the austerity measures implemented earlier this year at VLA have been lifted, this is likely to be only an interim measure.

Pressure on legal aid access creates problems with regard to access to justice, with some members of the judiciary expressing concern.

These issues are exacerbated by the implementation of a range of punitive laws, including, most recently, reforms to bail, the abolition of suspended sentences and punitive reforms on parole. This will create a greater burden on the justice system, especially prisons which, although continuing to receive an extraordinary level of resourcing, are forecast to experience a capacity crisis by 2016. This crisis comes at a cost, with each prisoner costing the state approximately $98,000 per annum. This is perpetuated by a recidivism rate of 36.9 per cent of prisoners within two years and with a 44 per cent increase in prison population in the decade up to 2011. A recent response has been a proposal to reward private prison operators with financial incentives if recidivism decreases – a concerning notion that implies that such goals were absent in the initial contracting process.

The magnitude of the capacity crisis and the government’s persistence in funding tough law and order policies has resulted in a de-investment in necessary community services which would arrest this spiralling prison rate. This should be reversed, with an emphasis on justice reinvestment being applied universally, targeting at risk populations with evidence-informed interventions. A good example of this, relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities, is a recent study1 which illustrated the social, health and financial benefits of diversion and alcohol and other drug residential treatment over prison, achieving a saving of $111,458 per offender with additional savings associated to better health related quality of life of $92,759; these savings are achieved with a 17 per cent reduction in reoffending.

According to the Victorian Council of Social Services analysis of resourcing for social services in the 2011-12 state budget (adjusted for population increase and CPI), primary and dental health, alcohol and other drug services, housing, education and skills all sustained a reduction in funding, with a marginal increase in mental health and disability services. Many of these services address key vulnerabilities evident in the prison population, which include:

  • 31 per cent completion rate of year 11 or 12 of schooling for the general prison population, with ATSI prisoners enduring the lower completion rate of 20 per cent;
  • 32 per cent of prisoners were either sleeping rough or in short term/emergency accommodation in the four weeks prior to incarceration, compared with 44 per cent of ATSI prisoners;
  • ATSI peoples are significantly overrepresented in prisons (13 fold likelihood than the general community) and generally experience more exacerbated adverse social determinants;
  • ATSI prisoners accounted for 12 of the 58 deaths in custody nationwide during 2010-11;
  • 28 per cent of ATSI prisoners have had a parent (or both parents) previously incarcerated, compared with 17 per cent of the prison population;
  • 38 per cent of prisoners experience mental illness during their lives and 21 per cent are currently on medication for mental health related conditions, an increase from the 2010 figures of 37 per cent and 18 per cent respectively;
  • 41 per cent hepatitis C infection rates (with higher rates for those who are injecting drug users);
  • 79 per cent of prisoners, and 83 per cent of ATSI prisoners, are smokers (compared with 16.6 per cent of the general population);
  • 39 per cent of prisoner entrants and 59 per cent of ATSI prisoner entrants reported high risk alcohol consumption in the past 12 months; and
  • 70 per cent of prisoners (and 67 per cent of ATSI prisoners) had used illicit drugs in the past 12 months, compared with 13 per cent in the general community.

The stagnation and in some cases, social de-investment, in resourcing for much of the community sector is creating difficulties for vulnerable individuals to access services. These individuals interface with the justice system, are netted by an expanding police force, funnelled through a heavily burdened court system and supported by a diminished legal aid system. These individuals then flow into our growing prison system, with more than one third destined to do it all again. Victoria must break the cycle and divert resources from enforcement into health, welfare and treatment as well as legal aid.



DAVID TAYLOR is a policy officer, Victorian Alcohol & Drug Association (VAADA).

1. Australian National Council on Drugs. An economic analysis for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Offenders: prison vs residential treatment, http://tinyurl.com/q7b7yxk.

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