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Comment: More prison beds are not the answer

Comment: More prison beds are not the answer

By Dr Karen Gelb


Dr Karen Gelb is a Consultant Criminologist who was previously the Senior Criminologist at the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council.

Last month the Victorian Government announced plans to expand the Lara prison precinct, roughly doubling the existing maximum-security Barwon Prison. It follows on the heels of the December 2017 announcement that the Government would add more than 470 new beds to prisons across the state, at a cost of almost $345 million. These new beds are in addition to the 1000-bed Ravenhall Correctional Centre, which began taking prisoners only two months ago. 

The December announcement came just one day after the Crime Statistics Agency released data showing that Victoria had seen its biggest decline in the crime rate in twelve years.

After substantial criticism from the Opposition on its ‘weak’ record on crime and justice, the Andrews Labor Government has responded with a series of populist, simplistic answers to complex problems.

The 2018 election’s ‘tough-on-crime’ rhetoric has begun.

Premier Andrews has shown that he is willing to bid ever higher in a law-and-order auction, spending more taxpayer dollars to put more people in prison – almost $1billion in total prison expenditure in 2016-17. The latest bid of hundreds of additional beds joins a raft of recent reforms, including tougher sentencing, a virtual shut down of parole, and reforms that make it harder than ever for people to secure bail.

The Opposition, in turn, has shown a willingness to stoke the flames of community fear, claiming that, despite the lower crime rate, Victoria is no longer a safe place to live. Matthew Guy asserts that policies such as his mandatory ‘two-strikes’ plan for adults who re-offend will make Victoria safe once more by locking up an ever-increasing number of the state’s population.

Neither approach – not the simplistic reforms implemented by Government nor the punitive reforms proposed by the Opposition – will significantly reduce the rate of crime in our community. Crime is a complex social problem; more prison beds are not the answer.

Victoria now holds more people behind bars than ever before, with over 7,100 people currently in prison. Reform of bail legislation means that more people now face a presumption against bail, with more being held in prison on remand as a result: more than 2,200 people, or 31% of the prison population, are currently in custody awaiting trial (ten years ago, the proportion of prisoners on remand was only 19%). Tougher sentencing, including the Government’s new standard sentencing scheme, will see more people sent to prison, for longer stays. And the tightening of the parole system means that fewer people are being released from prison under supervised parole. Those held until the end of their sentence walk away with no supervision at all.

All this ‘tough-on-crime’ activity has led to enormous pressure on Victoria's prison system. Newspaper headlines frequently contain the words ‘crisis’ and ‘crumbling’ to describe our overcrowded criminal justice system. Overcrowding means that access to education, treatment and rehabilitation programs has decreased, with almost 44% of released prisoners returning to prison within two years. This is not surprising: research shows that prisoners are among the most disadvantaged and damaged of all populations. High proportions are victims of abuse and other trauma, have serious mental health or cognitive problems, and have little formal education. These characteristics are particularly widespread among women and young people in prison.

Overcrowded prisons cannot rehabilitate such an impaired prison population, and so they cannot effectively prevent crime. Even in the absence of population pressures, a vast body of research has shown that imprisonment does little to reduce re-offending; in many cases it actually increases the chance that a person will return to crime.

Despite the evidence that prison does not make communities safer, politicians on both sides maintain that this is what the public wants.

But is it? Research over the past forty years in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States has dismissed the idea of a ‘punitive public’ as myth. It shows that when people are informed about the details of a case they are far less punitive than we are often led to believe by media headlines. In fact, Victorian jurors have been found to prefer more lenient sentences than judges.

What the public wants is a safer community, but the way to achieve that is not by locking up ever more people. The way to enhance community safety is by investing in the programs, services and support that prevent crime in the first place and address underlying reasons for offending among those who commit it. Even the United States – world leader in locking up large swaths of its population – has come to realise that this approach, known as 'justice reinvestment', offers a way to be smart on crime rather than simply tough on crime.

Until Victorian Governments start to be smarter on crime – moving taxpayer dollars away from prisons and into crime reduction initiatives that have been proven to be effective – the community will be no safer. 

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