Travers McLeod, Frances Kitt & Krystal Lockwood: Prison stems from disadvantage and entrenches it

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Published in The Australian on 10 December 2020

The story of Richmond’s two-time premiership player Marlion Pickett reads like a fairytale. He went from youthful crime and prison time in Western Australia to playing his first AFL game at age 27 in last year’s grand final at a packed MCG and being among the best on the ground. This year, in his 20th AFL game, he won his second premiership medal.

Sadly, Pickett’s story is the exception­ to the rule. Our new report­, Partners in Crime, shows that Australia’s criminal justice systems are far more likely to keep people on the same path than put them on a new, more hopeful one because incarceration creates and compounds multiple forms of disadvantage that are closely entwined with getting in trouble with the law.

A few statistics illustrate the problem. A survey of prisoners shows about a third reported being homeless in the month ­before going to jail, but more than half expected to be homeless when they got out. About half of prison entrants were employed before being locked up, yet less than a quarter had jobs organised on release.

With no work and no home to go to, it is hardly surprising people leaving prison are more likely than not to return to the corrections system within two years.

After doing time, ex-prisoners generally go back to communities that often lack the financial means and social resources to support them adequately. This makes it likely the disadvantage compounds and becomes cyclical, often down the generations.

Almost one in five surveyed prisoners had a parent or carer in prison when they were a child. About 77,000 children were estim­ated to have a parent in prison in 2018. These children are the innocent victims of the criminal justice conveyor belt.

Criminal justice systems have become the default response to disadvantage. In place of getting the support they need, ever more people are locked into cycles of disadvantage, at great cost to human dignity, and damaging not only prisoners but their families and communities. The impact is particularly dev­as­­tating for Indigenous Australians, overrepresented at every stage of our criminal justice­ systems. They experience higher rates of victimisation and police contact, and are the most incarcerated people in the world, as the Uluru Statement from the Heart reminds us.

Before COVID-19 struck, incarceration rates had been rising despite falling crime rates. Most states and territories have incarceration rates above the global average, which is enormously costly to taxpayers. In 2017-18, total net operating expenditure on prisons was $3.4bn, rising to $4bn when community corrections are included. And that does not include the capital costs of building new facilities. In its 2019 budget, Victoria alone announced a record $1.8bn spend to accommodate an extra 1600 prisoners.

On the evidence, no jury would be convinced that more prisons and tougher sentences will make society safer. Recently, some US states have managed to close prisons and reduce crime rates. Proportionally, Germany locks up far fewer people than we do, yet has a lower homicide rate.

We need to find more effective and efficient ways to reduce crime and increase community safety. Prison systems have a role to play. The public demands offenders pay a penalty for breaking the law. Victims of crime legitimately expect­ to see justice done. Yet we also want our systems to reform offenders so they can lead prod­uctive lives. And the best investment would be services that ensure people aren’t sucked into the system in the first place.

Australia’s most vulnerable people are caught up in criminal justice systems that lack a unified purpose, oscillating instead between­ the conflicting aims of punishment, deterrence, restitu­tion and rehabilitation.

We need to make a clearer choice about the purpose of such systems. Holding people in jail is a policy choice, one often driven by community anxiety about crime. But it’s often the wrong choice.

COVID-19 shows us things could be different. A fall in the number of people entering custody demonstrates the possibility of alternatives, of lowering incarceration rates and of crafting a different­ narrative on crime and justice that doesn’t trap us into repeating­, or amplifying, the same failing measures.

This needs co-ordination between employers, industry, civil society, communities, service providers, philanthropy, and people with lived experience. It calls for high-quality evidence and evidence-based decision-making. And it requires hard work at the systems and community levels.

Marlion Pickett should not be the exception to the rule.

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