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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