Pushing ‘unapologetically’ to break the ‘prison cycle’

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The Alexander Maconochie Centre. Photo: Andrew Finch

“Jails are tough places to be. As much as we want to have a human-rights-compliant jail, my view is that the best thing we can do for human rights is to make sure people don’t go to jail at all,” writes Corrections Minister SHANE RATTENBURY.

THIS year the ACT government set a significant new direction in justice policy.

Shane Rattenbury.

In the ACT, as we’re seeing across Australia, while crime rates are going down, incarceration rates are still going up.

Prisons cannot simply turn away people sentenced by the courts. It begs the question as to what can be done to avert this challenging trend over the long term.

In most jurisdictions, the response from governments over many decades has been more of the “same old”: building larger prisons, rather than addressing the issues that see individuals commit crime in the first place.

This “same-old” policy has netted us the “same-old” outcomes – rising incarceration rates, and for many, a prison “cycle”, where too many prisoners keep cycling in and out of the criminal-justice system.

In the ACT, we have the same trends, but we don’t accept this outcome. We need to do things differently to get different, and better, results.  

That’s why earlier this year, the government took an explicit decision to adopt a Justice Reinvestment approach instead.

Justice Reinvestment is honest about the reality of incarceration in Australia. It sees that the most just justice system is one that acts early to help prevent the circumstances that can lead to crime in the first place.

As columnist Michael Moore wrote (“Can Shane deliver on prison reform?” CN, June 13), there is a clear responsibility here to put words into action. It is one thing to suggest “Justice Reinvestment”: and another to deliver.

That’s why in the past six months the ACT government has committed $85 million towards extensive, evidence-based Justice Reinvestment programs, to make sure we are putting words into action.

In February, the ACT government took a major step to rule out an expansion of the Alexander Maconochie Centre high-security campus – an Australian first. We will not spend the more than $200 million of capital expenditure to build a warehouse-style prison, plus more than $25 million a year in operating costs. Instead, we will redirect funds into Justice Reinvestment programs.

Part of the spending is to build a new, low-security Reintegration Centre “outside the wire”. This stands in strong contrast to the maximum security inside the fence. More like a prison “farm” seen in other jurisdictions, detainees will spend their time focused on transitioning to life on the outside, potentially even going to work as they serve out their sentences.

Similarly, the money that would otherwise go to building a bigger prison is now also being used to support those most in need: victims of crime; Aboriginal detainees, who make up an unacceptable proportion of our prison population; female detainees; and/or those at risk of homelessness.

For example, we know that on average, one in five prisoners say they did not have a secure place to live in the four weeks leading up to their time in prison – a reason often cited when refusing bail.

That’s why we’ve invested $6.9 million to establish a bail-support program, and another $13 million on a Justice Housing program so that more people don’t find themselves in prison simply because they don’t have anywhere secure to live.

What is the alternative? Had we kept with the “same old” approach, by current estimates, we would end up building bigger prisons every five years. By simply housing, rather than rehabilitating prisoners, we would fail to end the prison cycle, at significant cost to the community.

Jails are tough places to be. As much as we want to have a human-rights-compliant jail, my view is that the best thing we can do for human rights is to make sure people don’t go to jail at all.

For the potential victims, they’re better off because the crime doesn’t occur, and for the potential detainees, we can help them set their lives on a different trajectory.

This is no small task. It’s not an overnight fix, or a sound grab. This is not the end – our Justice Reinvestment strategy, and the reducing recidivism targets, extend to at least 2025. This work must continue.

You can only say so much in one tweet, but I am happy to reassure Michael Moore and “CityNews” readers that there is much more substance behind those 140 characters.

Shane Rattenbury is the ACT Minister for Justice and Corrections.

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