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New report urges Victoria to boost spending on alternatives to prison

Dechlan Brennan -

A new report has called on the Victorian government to increase funding to alternatives to incarceration, saying the growing spending on prisons has the potential to undermine positive policies and initiatives.

The Justice Reform Initiative (JRI) released the report - 'Jailing is Failing: The need for alternatives to Incarceration in Victoria' - on Tuesday.

The JRI is made up of notable experts from across the political spectrum, including the Hon. Kevin Bell AM KC, Former Commissioner of the Yoorrook Justice Commission and Former Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria; Tim Costello AO, Former CEO of World Vision and current chair of the Community Council for Australia; Petro Georgiou AO, Former Federal Member for Kooyong and Victorian Director of the Liberal Party and founding Director of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs; the Hon. Marcia Neave AO, Former Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria and Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Family Violence; and Andrew M Jackomos PSM, inaugural Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.

"Locking up both adults and children is now collectively costing the state more than $1.5 billion in annual net operating costs alone. Government expenditure on adult prisons has almost doubled over the past decade, increasing by 96%, and spending on imprisoning children has exploded by 351 per cent," the alliance said in a statement.

It noted that the real direct cost per adult prisoner per day for taxpayers is $409, or $149,113 per year; and $5,051 per child per day or $1.84 million per year.

The report said the Victorian Government is spending "disproportionately on prisons, despite strong recognition from both sides of politics that the current prison system is failing to deter crime or reduce reoffending".

It argues that both major parties in Victoria have admitted a need to change the approach to crime, as the legislative implementations and policy decisions have only resulted in exacerbated prison numbers.

"Victoria continues to rely on a system of incarceration for children and adults that is harmful, expensive and ineffective. Prison does not work to reduce crime, it does not work to build safer communities and it does not work to address the social drivers of contact with the criminal justice system," the report noted.

"The overuse of incarceration in Victoria has historically been driven by a politicised approach to justice policy, with both major parties frequently competing to promote a 'tough on crime' agenda."

The Victorian government has been largely forthright in their acknowledgement of incarceration reform and the need for change, albeit at a slower rate than some experts have called for.

Last week saw the decriminalisation of public drunkenness after a long campaign from the family of deceased Yorta Yorta woman Aunty Tanya Day, which has been lauded by health and legal experts.

Bail laws - which were changed after the Bourke Street attack in 2018 - were deemed to be punitive and have been altered; a Youth Justice Bill is likely to be seen in the new year; and a new service model is to be designed to help children stay out of the justice system.

The Victorian government, under former Premier Daniel Andrews, committed to raising the age of criminal responsibility; first to 12 by the end of 2024, and then to 14 after reforms – which includes the new service model.

"There has been a welcome shift away from this politicised approach in recent years in Victoria, and a stronger focus on the evidence about what actually works to build community safety and to reduce incarceration," the report argued.

JRI's Executive Director, Dr Mindy Sotiri, said Victoria has a real opportunity to lead the nation in justice reform, through larger investment in alternatives.

These include early prevention measures, diversion, First Nations led programs, and specialist courts that address disadvantage and provide pathways out of the justice system.

"There is clear political will and desire for evidence-based criminal justice reform in Victoria, including the welcome commitment to raise the age of criminal responsibility and change bail laws," she said.

"But this needs to be followed through by appropriately resourcing the community-led alternatives that we know will work to reduce contact with the criminal justice system and break the cycle.

"Victoria has the opportunity to shift its funding approach so that all Victorian children and adults who are currently 'managed' in prisons, instead have the opportunity to access necessary support services in the community and across all points of the justice system."

Data highlighted in the report shows adult incarceration Victoria sits at 127 people, per 100,000, a 14 per cent increase in the last decade.

11 per cent of the prison population are First Nations, despite making up one per cent of the State's population, whilst First Nations children made up 13 per cent of the youth prison population.

Whilst both rates are the lowest in the nation, the raw statistics show Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria are dramatically over-represented; 1,671 people per 100,000 First Nations adults are imprisoned compared to 111 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous people.

Dr Sotiri said there is an overwhelming swathe of evidence to show prisons fail to deter crime, reduce reoffending or contribute meaningfully and tangibly to community safety.

"The report shows very clearly that incarceration not only fails to reduce crime and address the drivers behind it, but increases the likelihood of reoffending," Dr Sotiri said.

"In Victoria we have seen a concrete shift in the policy and legislative settings that have driven prison numbers up so dramatically, such as the recent decriminalisation of public drunkenness. While these are positive steps, there is much more to be done in bridging the significant funding gap and properly resourcing the proven alternatives outside of prison."

The report highlights "significant shifts" in Victoria over the last five years from the use of incarceration on children. A 37 per cent reduction in prisoners aged 10 to 18 since 2018 means the state has the lowest rate in Australia for youth incarceration (1.2 children per 10,000).

"There has also been significant investment – more than $125 million over the last five years for diversionary programs for children and young people, and $22 million for community crime prevention programs," the report stated.

The report highlights research and examples of successful alternatives to incarceration.

Early intervention programs were cited as reducing crime at a population level by between 5 and 31 per cent, whilst bail support programs have cut reoffending by 31 per cent and increased bail compliances by 95 per cent.

Furthermore, Indigenous place-based approaches have seen "significant" reductions in crime, contact with the criminal justice system, and a reduction in costs.

Other programs include focus on drug and alcohol dependency, which has contributed to a reduction in days in custody and new offences.

The report argued policy decisions are the main driver of incarceration, regardless of crime statistics.

"Increases and decreases in prison populations tend to be related to systems, legislative and policy decisions, rather than crime," it said.

"Too often, decision making about critical policy and legislative reform has focused on political rather than policy outcomes."

The report also emphasised a significant factor in increased prison numbers: remand.

42 per cent of the state's adult prison population are on remand, second only to South Australia nation-wide. The number of people on remand in Victoria has increased by a nation high 178 per cent over the last decade. As many as 83 per cent of children in prison on an average night in 2022 were on remand.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission said remand must only be used as a last resort, and never when the punishment for the accused crime would not result in a custodial sentence. They noted in their interim report that Indigenous women were some of the hardest hit when it came to remand, and before the bail law changes, were often incarcerated for low-level, non-violent offences.

Dr Sotiri said the state must continue to advocate for community-led options, and expand their funding for alternatives to incarceration, which tackle the underlying drivers of offending and recidivism.

"Despite the strong evidence base, we have seen policy settings in Victoria that continue to prioritise investment in prisons ahead of community-led alternatives," she said.

"This report shows there are community-led programs doing considerable work in breaking cycles of reincarceration in Victoria and across Australia, particularly First Nations-led organisations, which are achieving remarkable outcomes with very limited support and resourcing. But too many of these services are under-funded and unable to meet demand.

"Jailing is failing. Victoria must accelerate its shift towards an evidence-based criminal justice system by adequately funding the services and supports that actually work to break the cycle of incarceration."

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