Throwing justice baby out with parole bath water

Prison barsDarren Linton (Senior Journalist, Weekend News, 24 August 2013) correctly made the point that while we as a community are pondering  the clear failures of the parole system in Victoria in recent times, we need to be very careful that we don’t end up with something far worse in its place.

Whatever we might think of people who commit major offences against the law, we should surely recognise that a properly managed and resourced parole system is an essential part of the community’s armoury against repetitive offending. It puts the parolee out in the community on probation and demands strict compliance with the rehabilitative programs that ought to be an integral part of it.

We also need to understand that, while the ultimate responsibility for parole decisions rest with the Board, they have had to rely almost totally on Corrections Victoria for assessments, suitability reports, monitoring and breaches. A number of factors have combined recently to make this task near impossible to perform without the possibility of mistakes occurring.

The prison population in Victoria has grown by 40% in the last decade and the present
“tough on crime” policy approach is adding to the burden. At the same time stringent fiscal measures have, according to the Board’s Justice Whelan, led to a reduction of around 25% in the numbers of staff supporting the Board’s work. Victoria’s Board runs on just 1/6 the funding provided to its NSW counterpart!

Even in the absence of parole, almost all offenders will eventually be back out in the community. Currently, those few who do not get parole have not expressed remorse and have refused to participate in appropriate programs while still incarcerated. They are also the most likely to reoffend.

Admittedly, the rates of reoffending are extraordinarily high; some 70 % of imprisoned persons will be back inside within a year. But also extraordinarily high is the incidence of major underlying issues affecting those prisoners and their ability to reintegrate into the community upon release. Three quarters of them have significant mental health issues and more than half have serious substance abuse histories. Their sense of self esteem, like their chances of finding secure, affordable accommodation and employment is level with ground zero.

Other Australian jurisdictions have already learned that being “tough on crime” and locking people away doesn’t fix the problem and doesn’t improve the safety of the community. If anything, it makes it worse as low level offenders learn how to become high level ones and take out their bitterness on the society that put them away instead of addressing their health and housing needs.

It costs around $120,000 per year to keep someone in gaol. For $40,000 you can supervise them on a Community Corrections Order and subject them to Judicial Monitoring (regular returns before the Sentencing Magistrate or Judge) and provide counseling and therapies to address health issues and provide them with modest, secure accommodation in a place they can call their home. They may also be able to do community work so that they give back to the community rather than being a long term drain upon resources that would be better spent on health and education for the rest of us and our families.

As we Victorians increase prisoner numbers through harsher penalties, other States are taking a different path. They tried “tough on crime” and found it didn’t work. It might be good politics in the short term but you can’t fool the voters for ever. Progressive jurisdictions are pursuing policies of justice reinvestment. They recognise that early interventions are the most successful and they are now putting in place a new and more effective early intervention regime involving assistance with accommodation, education, counselling and mentoring for those most at risk; often even before any involvement in the criminal justice system occurs.

You only have to look at last week’s Shepparton News report about the reduction in youth criminal matters heard in Shepparton’s Courts during the last year to see that diversions outside of the criminal justice system can bring really good results.

Karen Gurney, Managing Lawyer

Photo credit: Mr. Physics / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
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