Forum – Why More Prisons are not the Answer to Reducing Crime and Disadvantage

By Tess Jaeger
Birds on collage backgraound

A free public forum held by a coalition of organisations, including the Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria (FCLC), Flat Out, the Centre for the Human Rights of Imprisoned People (CHRIP), Inside Access, and Smart Justice, offered perspectives on Victoria’s prison system from diverse speakers. The forum took place in the wake of the Baillieu Government’s vow to improve Victorian community safety by implementing tough new law and order policies and attracted a packed audience of eager listeners.

Wurundjeri Elder Margaret Gardiner offered a Welcome to Country at the beginning of the forum. It was great to see all presentations translated into Auslan with the help of two interpreters. Hugh de Kretser – Executive Officer at the FCLC and spokesperson for Smart Justice – offered an opening overview of Victoria’s growing prison population, disadvantage and future trends.

Among other statistics, Mr de Kretser highlighted vast differences in imprisonment rates for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Victoria. Figures from the Corrections Victoria Statistical Profile of the Victorian Prison System and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reveal the extent of this disparity. Mr de Kretser noted that, generally, the Victorian crime rate is decreasing. However, there has been an increase in the amount of prison spending over the past 10 years. The previous Victorian Government projected a 45 per cent increase in male prison populations over the proceeding 10 years to 2020, with a corresponding 60 per cent increase in women’s prison populations.

“sentencing reform … is expected to be the main driver of growth in prison bed demand”

Michelle McDonnell, Policy Officer for Smart Justice and the FCLC, undertook the difficult task of summarising the Baillieu Government’s proposed new sentencing policies, which indicate significant changes to the system under the Brumby administration. This presentation cited the Victorian Department of Justice 2010–2011 annual report in highlighting that “sentencing reform – such as the abolition of home detention and suspended sentences, as well as the proposed mandatory minimum sentencing for certain serious offences – is expected to be the main driver of growth in prison bed demand” in the future.

Speakers who shared personal experiences of loss and grief described disturbing aspects of the Victorian and Australian prison systems. Charandev Singh’s presentation shed a light on the lives of those who have been subject to the justice, mental health and prison systems, including the families of people who have died in custody. Mr Singh is a volunteer with the Centre for the Human Rights of Imprisoned People (CHRIP) and systemic advocacy consultant at Inside Access, Mental Health Legal Centre.

… in Victoria approximately 50 per cent of prisoners have been in jail before.

Following from Hugh de Kretser’s earlier references to the representation of Indigenous Australians in the Victorian prison system, Wayne Muir – CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) – discussed the likely impact of Victoria’s revised sentencing policies on Aboriginal people. His sentiments that imprisonment can often have the unwanted side effect of encouraging people to become better criminals are supported by statistics describing rates of recidivism. According to Mr de Kretser’s address, in Victoria approximately 50 per cent of prisoners have been in jail before.

Many of the presentations, including Mr Muir’s, indicated that money to be diverted into funding for prisons would be better spent on social services to prevent crime, with the success of these services measured by an intended decrease in the number of people progressing through the legal system.

Don Specter, Director of the Prison Law Office, California, spoke via Skype about the recent landmark US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata, which requires the State of California to reduce the number of people in prison. The success of Mr Specter’s campaign offered an international perspective on possibilities for prison reform in Victoria and Australia more broadly.

… allusions to the execution of Troy Davis in the US State of Georgia were a raw reminder of the potential for error in justice systems.

John Walsh’s personal experiences in Australian prisons motivated him to found the Bridge of Hope Foundation. His address at the forum drew attention to the effects of prison systems, both in terms of the societies they are intended to protect, and the dehumanising consequences they too often have for the people who pass through them. Mr Walsh’s allusions to the execution of Troy Davis in the US State of Georgia were a raw reminder of the potential for error in justice systems.

Journalist Laurie Nowell’s presentation on mainstream media’s obsession with crime gave the opportunity to reflect on productive ways to engage with the press, and the public, through channels offering maximum coverage. This frank and practical account opened a somewhat bleak window into the salacious bent of crime coverage, which often couches unhelpful social commentary in its appeals to the lowest common denominator.

The forum was followed by a workshop focusing on progressive criminal justice reform. This featured moderator Annie Nash, Manager of Flat Out, along with panellists Debbie Kilroy (Sisters Inside Inc.); Arthur Bolkas (Five Eight) and members of the working group at CHRIP.

Stay tuned for more information about the forum on the FCLC website. Keep up to date by reading more on Smart Justice factsheets.

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  • Henrietta

    Readers may also be interested in this free public forum on Wednesday 7 December 2011:

    Sentencing: a case for change?

    A free, public forum on the Victorian Government’s proposed sentencing reforms in conjunction with the Victorian Bar and the Public Interest Law Clearing House.

    The forum will comprise a panel discussion followed by a question and answer session.

    Date: Wednesday 7 December 2011
    Time: 5 for 5.30 pm – 7 pm.
    Location: the State Library Village Roadshow Theatrette
    RSVP: by 5 December 2011
    Cost: Free

    Speakers include –

    – the Hon Justice Maxwell, President of the Court of Appeal
    – Alan Howe, Herald Sun
    – Hon Frank Vincent AO QC, Victoria University and formerly Court of Appeal
    – Prof Arie Freiberg AM, Monash University and Chair of the Sentencing Advisory Council

  • Jessy7

    I was recently released from a Victorian prison on parole (for the second time). You see, my parole was cancelled. I have still not received any explanation as to why my parole was cancelled.

    At the time of the cancellation (early this year) I was working full time in a great job and had just recently graduated (post graduate) from university.
    Prior to that I was studying, working and living on campus of a highly reputable university (all with the knowledge and consent of the Adult parole board). I had not committed any offense (since the original conviction nearly 20 years ago) and am held in high regard in my community. I had been on parole for 4.5 years with only 6 months remaining. As such, within my community of friends and colleagues my past crime was just that, “in the past”, and rarely if ever spoken about.

    I now find myself with parole reporting conditions 16 times more frequent than before I was breached, rendering it impossible for me to undertake full time work of any sort. In fact, quite legitimately I am not eligible for unemployment benefits as a result of not having the time to work full time.
    Nor am I entitled to any other Government financial support benefit.

    To add to the insult, though I have never had positive urine test ever, including the very long time that I had served in prison, and do not have any drug related history. I also now have to provide weekly urinalysis and am place on call for random urinalysis.

    Further more, the time (4.5 years) I spent on my last parole was not counted toward my sentence and my parole period was reset to start again. 5 more years! And all this (and more …) after having served nearly another year in prison, still with no reason given at all by the Adult Parole Board.

    Close to 1 million dollars was the cost to the tax payer to take me out of a normal and healthy life where I was a contributing citizen, to bring me to spending my days attending community corrections and the like and peeing in a cup on demand (also at the tax payers expense).

    I expect that many of you will think that there must be more to the story. Perhaps I am leaving something out or that I am full of shit. This cant be true.

    I can assure any doubters that the information that I have provided is accurate. I can and will happily provide a means by which the above information can be confirmed.

    However my reason for writing here is that I am hopping to find others that have experienced or know of such situations.

    In an effort to determine what has happened in my circumstances I have come across a major stumbling block. It turns out that the Adult Parole Board has be granted an Exemption from Human Rights and are also Exempt from Freedom of Information….

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