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Rethinking justice

Australian Red Cross has launched a new research report calling for a radical shift in the justice system, redirecting funds away from imprisonment and into crime prevention.

Red Cross' 2016 Vulnerability Report "Rethinking Justice" calls on all governments in Australia to put justice reinvestment at the centre of justice policy.

Download the 2016 Vulnerability Report "Rethinking Justice"

"Justice reinvestment is a cost-effective alternative to what we're currently doing, which is not working, costing us billions and is fundamentally inhumane," said Red Cross Chief Executive Officer Judy Slatyer.

Watch: Justice reinvestment - a better way to do justice

Diverting funds

Justice reinvestment means money is diverted from building and running more and more prisons into strengthening disadvantaged communities to address the issues that lead to criminal behaviour in the first place.

The number of people in prison has doubled in the last 20 years. Overcrowded prisons are costing us $3.4 billion a year to run. So it makes sense to reduce the flow into prisons, rather than building more. This means redirecting spending to tackle the underlying causes of crime including poor mental health, poor education and employment prospects, homelessness, domestic violence and alcohol and other drug abuse.

We know that a disproportionate number of highly disadvantaged people end up in prison. It's estimated prisoners are up to three times more likely to have mental illness and up to 15 times more likely to have a psychotic disorder. Another study has found 42% of male prisoners and 33% of female prisoners have an acquired brain injury. Crime is higher in more disadvantaged postcodes, where there's entrenched poverty, segregation and residential instability. So people go into prison disadvantaged and they come out of prison even more disadvantaged. And this also hits innocent families and communities. When a child loses a parent to the prison system this becomes an intergenerational problem.

Closing the gap

The over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in prisons must be urgently tackled.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are being incarcerated at rates 13 times greater than non-Indigenous people. There has been an extraordinary recent growth in prisoner numbers among Indigenous people of 88% since 2004. This reflects the broader disadvantage faced by many Indigenous people, and is another persuasive reason why resources must be diverted to those communities if we are to turn around these shameful trends.

Ms Slatyer said while prisons are a necessary part of society, the data shows that they are neither effective at rehabilitation, nor are they deterring crime. Of the 42,239 people released from Australian prisons in 2013/14 almost 60% had previously been released from prison - only to return. Some 38% of prisoners are reimprisoned within two years of their release. By any measure that's not a good return on an investment.

Ms Slatyer said Red Cross calculates that substantial funds could be freed up by justice reinvestment. If the rate of incarceration were simply held at current levels through justice reinvestment and other reforms, savings of $1.2 billion would be generated over five years. If the rate of incarceration were reduced by 2% a year savings of $2.3 billion could be made over five years. Part of these savings could be invested in the social and health services that would, over time, address many of the underlying causes of crime.


Red Cross has recommended that all governments:

1. Change their approach to justice to achieve lower crime rates, lower incarceration rates, reduced prison costs and stronger, safer communities

2. Commit to a justice reinvestment approach and support its implementation through COAG

3. Establish justice reinvestment trials in communities with high rates of crime

4. Adopt justice reform outlined in the report to prevent crime, recidivism; increase non-custodial sentencing; and improve parole and reintegration into the community

5. Commit to a 10% reduction in adult imprisonment rates over the next 10 years, with a 50% reduction target for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within five years.

For more than a century Red Cross has been working to support vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals and communities around Australia in line with our humanitarian focus and to contribute to a safer and more cohesive society.

Is there is link between spiralling numbers of people being imprisoned and the decrease in crime? Criminologist Rick Sarre says no. Read more in his speech at the launch of our Vulnerability Report.

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