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Why jailing is failing South Australia

Opinion

Imprisonment is an expensive, increasingly ineffective default response which perpetuates a cycle of reoffending and it’s time to consider alternatives, argues Chris Sumner and Robert Hill.

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As South Australia’s new Labor Government sets down its policy agenda for the next four years, it has a golden opportunity to positively change the state’s long established but somewhat unsuccessful approach to law and order and imprisonment.

SA’s prison population has soared by nearly 50% over the past decade. The prior imprisonment rate is also rising rapidly – well over half of prisoners have been in prison before, and more than four out of 10 people exiting prison will reoffend within two years.

New Attorney-General Kyam Maher, and Correctional Services Minister Joe Szakacs, will be aware that on page 108 of the Marshall Government’s last Budget agency statement for Correctional Services, $1.5 million is allocated to develop a business case for a “new rehabilitation prison”.

But the evidence shows that in South Australia, and all around the country, the prison system is failing to deter crime and failing to rehabilitate. The system is less about rehabilitation than about spending huge sums of money on a ‘revolving door’ approach that actually increases the likelihood of reoffending and reimprisonment.

Prison is supposed to be used as a last resort, but too often is used instead as a default response because there is an absence of meaningful community based alternatives that genuinely address the drivers of incarceration.

Jailing is also unjust: 2% of SA’s population are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, but they make up 23.5% of those in prison. More than half of children in detention are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Overall, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander South Australians are more than 15 times more likely to be in prison – a moral stain on the system. Their greater rate of incarceration results in more deaths in custody, as the 1991 Royal Commission pointed out.

The system is less about rehabilitation than about spending huge sums of money on a ‘revolving door’ approach that actually increases the likelihood of reoffending and reimprisonment

The price tag is also difficult to stomach. The failed ‘prison first’ approach is now costing taxpayers more than $361 million – equivalent to $80,289 per year per adult prisoner – each year.

The figures are contained within a new report recently released by the Justice Reform Initiative, a broad alliance which includes former judges, prosecutors, parliamentarians and Aboriginal leaders, who have witnessed how the overuse of jail sentences in our justice system leads to worse outcomes for our society, not better.

Governments from both sides of the aisle have held on to this failed approach, but the Malinauskas Government now faces an opportunity. The $187 million currently earmarked to expand the failing prison system could instead go straight to early intervention, to health care, education, housing, mental health services and community led diversionary initiatives.

Evidence-based programs that operate outside of the justice system are able to get tough on the causes of crime, and in doing so are much more effective than imprisonment when it comes to breaking cycles of incarceration and offending. Interventions that address the drivers of incarceration and operate to divert people from the justice system are effective at reducing reoffending.

The same goes for intensive programs supporting people leaving prison. In NSW, a recent evaluation found that supportive post-release programs immediately disrupt reoffending and reduce contact with the criminal justice system by 65%.

The evidence also shows that raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 – provided it is combined with increasing support for at-risk youth and diverting children from the criminal justice system – would strengthen families and communities, as well as making our communities safer. These programs will save taxpayers millions of dollars that can be immediately reinvested in better services for the community, and lead to fewer people in the criminal justice system down the track.

Governments around the world – from all sides of politics – are seeing that jailing is failing and moving away from incarceration as a default response. In the United States, both Republican and Democrat state governments are acting on the evidence that shows mass incarceration doesn’t make communities safer nor prevent repeat offending. Reforms in Texas since 2007 have seen the state close four prisons, saving an estimated US$3 billion and reducing reoffending rates.

Interventions that address the drivers of incarceration and operate to divert people from the justice system are effective at reducing reoffending

When COVID-19 first appeared, our leaders took bold, evidence-based action to keep our communities safe. It is now time to invest the same level of energy and determination to reform SA’s criminal justice system.

South Australia has a proud history of leading the nation in social and legal reforms. In the 1980s and 1990s, Labor and Liberal Governments on a bipartisan basis were at the forefront of supporting victims of crime and developing community crime prevention programs to reduce offending and incarceration. Now, a prison-first approach has taken us down the wrong road.

The Malinauskas Government has the opportunity for a new direction – backed by evidence – to deliver better outcomes for all South Australians. It’s time to invest in people, not prisons.

Chris Sumner is a former state Labor Attorney-General. Robert Hill is a former SA Liberal senator and minister. Both authors are patrons of the Justice Reform Initiative.

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