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Call to rehabilitate SA prison system

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A group of prominent South Australians including former senior judges and politicians across the party divide has called on the Malinauskas Government to embark on major reform of the state’s prison system.

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The Justice Reform Initiative, a national alliance backed by prominent Australians with professional knowledge or lived experience of the justice system, is today releasing a major report into the “state of incarceration” in SA, which urges a new approach to help cut recidivism rates and reduce the number of South Australians behind bars.

The Initiative’s SA patrons include former Labor Premier Lynn Arnold and Liberal Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond, former Supreme Court judge Robyn Layton QC, former Deputy Chief Magistrate Andrew Cannon, former Howard Government minister Robert Hill, ex-SA Attorney-General Chris Sumner and former Correctional Services and Families and Communities boss Sue Vardon.

It also includes Auxiliary Master of the Supreme and District Courts Peter Norman, academics Rick Sarre and Mark Halsey, inaugural SA Commissioner for Children and Young People Helen Connolly and the current Guardian for Children and Young People, former Greens senator Penny Wright.

The report says that “the SA prison population has grown by almost 50 per cent since 2012”, citing an “over-reliance on imprisonment as a default response to both disadvantage and offending [which] has resulted in a situation where too many people in the justice system are unnecessarily trapped in a cycle of harmful and costly incarceration”.

“Instead of reducing the likelihood of reoffending, prison entrenches existing disadvantage and increases the likelihood of ongoing criminal justice system involvement,” it argues.

“Many people leave prison jobless, homeless and without the necessary supports to build healthy, productive, connected, and meaningful lives in the community.

“The criminal justice system is characterised by a cycle of disadvantage, where people enter and return to prison repeatedly.”

The group says this “’revolving door’ model is forecast to cost South Australian taxpayers $361 million this year”, on top of which “the state government is in the process of spending an additional $187 million on new prison beds”.

Justice Reform Initiative executive director Mindy Sotiri called on the Malinauskas Government to “seize the opportunity for evidence-based reform”.

“We are deeply alarmed by the fact that SA taxpayers are spending $1.5 million this financial year for the business case for a ‘rehabilitation prison’,” she said. “Coupled with the $187 million allocated for new prison beds, this is money which the state cannot afford to spend on a failed and antiquated approach to criminal justice.

“South Australia has a proud history of leading the nation in many areas of social reform, and we urge the Malinauskas Government to take this chance for a new direction which is backed by evidence and would deliver better outcomes for all South Australians… it’s time to invest in people, not prisons, and tackle the underlying social issues that funnel many disadvantaged people into the criminal justice system.”

The group advocates community-led diversionary and post-release programs, addressing homelessness, social and cultural community connection, and facilitating access to a range of services and supports including for mental health, cognitive impairment and problematic drug and alcohol use.

They also want legislative change to “prevent children unnecessarily entering the justice system in the first place” by raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

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