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Action urged to fix broken prison system

Red Cross CEO calls for a radical overhaul of Australia's justice system.

Wednesday May 1, 2013

The Australian head of the world's largest humanitarian organisation has called for a radical overhaul of Australia's justice system which despite costing billions of dollars is not reducing crime.

Australian Red Cross Chief Executive Officer Robert Tickner has told a Senate Inquiry into justice reinvestment that Australia spends $3.2 billion to keep people in prisons each year but this neither deters crime nor stops people from reoffending.

"In fact just the opposite is happening. More and more people are going to jail - double the numbers of 20 years ago - but people are feeling less safe and secure," Mr Tickner said.

"What we are calling for is an approach known as justice reinvestment, whereby some of the money spent keeping people locked up is diverted to preventing people from committing crime in the first place. It's an approach which has proven effective elsewhere in the world - it saves money, leads to stronger communities and builds better life outcomes for many people."

Mr Tickner said Australia's approach results in pathways to prison, particularly for the most disadvantaged groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are incarcerated at 14 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.

"As a society we prefer to lock people up than tackle the underlying causes. We have opted to spend far too much only to perpetuate the suffering. Apart from being unjust and failed social policy, this is not financially sustainable.

"The annual cost of operating prisons across Australia is just over $3.2 billion dollars per year. The cost of building new prison beds is about $500,000 per bed and if Australia's rate of incarceration continues to grow at similar rates there will need to be a $5 billion investment in capital expenditure in the next decade."

In his submission, Mr Tickner outlined 23 recommendations based on diverting funds to create pathways away from prison.

The key recommendations are:

  • the Australian Government adopt a leadership role in committing to justice reinvestment as the framework for justice systems around the country, with the Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) overseeing a National Framework and Agreement with the Standing Council on Law and Justice with responsibility for whole of government responses
  • governments jointly fund trial justice reinvestment sites in three or four locations using a holistic place-based approach in metropolitan, regional and remote sites
  • a public education campaign be implemented to challenge the myths that being tough on crime reduces crime; some 55 percent of people in jail have previously served prison sentences and 39% of people are reincarcerated within two years of their release.


As well, it calls for Government through the COAG to establish an agreement which sets targets on a state and territory basis with a five-year goal to reduce incarceration rates to 2000 levels.

Because research shows people in prison come from disadvantaged backgrounds, it advocates investing in community building, family support, early years, prevention, education and employment and initiatives that address vulnerability and disadvantage. Funds would be diverted to alcohol and drug services, mental health services, housing, employment and training and other areas which support people to maintain their health and wellbeing and live productively.

Mr Tickner said Australian Red Cross - as a member of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement - has a long history of working with justice and social welfare issues. A number of Red Cross programs are making a difference to the lives of prisoners and their families including a prisoner support program at Risdon jail in Tasmania and a mentoring program for) young offenders in South Australia .

"Our mission is to prevent or reduce human suffering wherever it is found," he said. "Red Cross recognises that prisons play a part in the correctional system, particularly for serious crime. However it's time to move the debate away from being soft or hard on crime, to what's more effective in preventing crime and enabling better lives for prisoners, their families and their communities.

More information, including the full submission.

Media inquiries: Susan Cullinan, Red Cross media, (07) 3367 7416 or 0448 326 335