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New report calls for investment in alternatives to incarceration in NSW

Dechlan Brennan -

A new report released on Wednesday has reiterated calls for New South Wales to invest in alternatives to incarceration, arguing community-led programs that reduce offending and improve community safety are already showing strong results. 

It comes as a mountain of legal, human rights and Indigenous groups have criticised the NSW government for their “betrayal” of Aboriginal children with proposed new strict bail laws, releasing an open letter and petition calling for their abandonment. 

Alternatives to Incarceration in New South Wales by the Justice Reform Initiative (JRI) highlights NSW’s heavy reliance on incarceration. The state currently imprison more adults than anywhere else in the country; 28.5 per cent identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. 

Executive director Mindy Sotiri said the report highlighted the positive results of community programs to move people away from incarceration, but argued too often a populist and heavy-handed approach to crime was undertaken by governments.

“Rather than base policies on evidence of what actually works to prevent crime and reduce offending, the major parties have historically turned justice into a political competition, centred around a failed ‘tough on crime’ approach,” she said.

Dr Sotiri said funds that could be used for these programs were instead being funnelled through the prison system - only exacerbating future recidivism - calling it, “short-sighted, kneejerk policy reactiveness".

“This entrenched populist approach and extraordinary spending on prisons has meant that excellent evidence-based, community-led programs are left struggling for funds despite the overwhelming evidence that shows it is the investments made outside of prisons that truly prevent crime and improve community safety,” she said. 

The proposed bail laws have brought youth incarceration sharply into focus, with the NSW government acknowledging the laws will likely see more children imprisoned on remand. 

At the end of December 2023, more than 74 per cent of incarcerated children were on remand, having been refused bail.

Of the total youth custody population, 61.5 per cent were Indigenous. On an average night in NSW in June 2023, 106 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander young people were in detention.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Aboriginal legal Service (ALS) NSW/ACT chief executive Karly Warner, along with Arthur Moses SC, said: “The evidence demonstrates that incarceration of children increases crime by compounding the trauma vulnerable children have already been through, and giving them an apprenticeship in the criminal world that leads to more serious offending later in life".

“The experts who watch this process, day in and day out, do have a better and less costly way forward. 

“It involves giving children the services they need to stay off the streets, and to be engaged in more productive activities like job training, safe social activities in sports and art, and an education that inspires social cohesion.” 

In its report, JRI highlighted numerous community-led organisations that were reducing reoffending through restorative means.

These include Weave (Creating Futures), which offers intensive, culturally safe case work support to Aboriginal young people on release from custody and saw only 4.11 per cent of the 93 young people who attended the program reoffend; and the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project, which found a 38 per cent reduction in the number of youth proceeded against for driving offences, increased rates of school retention and estimated savings of $3.1 million over the course of a year. 

NGOs have long argued restorative means with culturally safe practices is the long-term solution to youth reoffending. Much of this comes from a combination of investment, and a move away from populist rhetoric towards youth crime. 

“Shifting away from a ‘tough on crime’ approach is simply not enough,” Dr Sotiri said.

“Decades of this outdated approach to justice have only entrenched the social and economic factors that drive contact with the criminal justice system.” 

She said the organisations currently available were impeded by a lack of funding and resources, despite their “impressive impact.”

JRI called on the NSW Government to establish a $300 million Breaking the Cycle Fund over four years to “boost evidence-based community-led organisations and projects that are successfully breaking the cycle of incarceration and recidivism".

“We need to significantly scale up our investments into community-led justice initiatives to prevent crime, particularly among children and young people, and to ensure there are strong exit pathways for those caught in a cycle of imprisonment,” Dr Sotiri said.

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