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Justice Reinvestment Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 20 Aug 2012

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (22:11):

Tonight I am speaking about a justice reinvestment approach to reducing crime in Australia, the growing community call for the adoption of this approach and the good work that is happening all around the country in this area.

I have previously spoken about justice reinvestment and why it is needed here in Australia, but I will recap briefly. Justice reinvestment is about reducing crime. It embodies the old common-sense idea that 'prevention is better than cure', but it comes with a fresh, modern face based on rigorous data and evaluation. Justice reinvestment is designed to achieve three good outcomes in one. Firstly, reducing excessive and costly imprisonment; secondly, improving public safety; and, thirdly, making communities stronger.

Essentially, justice reinvestment works by taking a portion of the public funds which have been earmarked for future imprisonment costs and diverting that money back into communities with a high concentration of offenders. That is because the evidence is clear that a large number of offenders come from, and then return to, a relatively small number of disadvantaged communities.
This money funds programs and services which then work to overcome the underlying causes of crime in those communities. Mapping, using demographic information, determines the neighbourhoods that will benefit most from additional investment in early intervention, diversionary and rehabilitation programs. The communities in question, including victims of crime and families of offenders, have a central role in the design and implementation of these local initiatives. It is crucial that they can own these local programs. Lastly, these services and programs are subject to rigorous and ongoing evaluation to make sure they actually work to reduce crime. The end result of a justice reinvestment approach is less crime and improved public safety, with more money spent on those communities which need it most and less money spent on locking people up.

And now let me come to what justice reinvestment is not, which is equally important to understand. Justice reinvestment is not about getting rid of prisons altogether. Prisons must, of course, be retained as a necessary tool to protect the community from serious and dangerous offenders. Justice reinvestment must also not be used as a cover for de-investment in what are often already underfunded prison services and programs.

We must provide appropriate in-prison treatment, education and vocational training if we are going to break the cycle of offending and reoffending that has led to our prisons being described as a revolving door.

Finally, justice reinvestment is not soft on crime. Justice reinvestment is actually smart on crime. It is not smart to build more and more prisons, to spend more and more public money and to jail more and more people only to see many of them return to prison after a short time. That is a clear policy failure. But justice reinvestment is smart. It uses criminal justice policies based on evidence, which are most likely to improve public safety over the long term. It is simple: less crime equals less victims. To assist victims we must focus both on providing services to victims when crime occurs-and I know that these kinds of services are extremely important-and on long-term crime reduction and prevention, bearing in mind that many offenders have at one time or another also been victims.

None of this is new to the many dedicated community groups and individuals out there who have been working hard every day to make justice reinvestment in Australia a reality. A quick whip around the country shows us just what momentum is gathering. In New South Wales we have a Justice Reinvestment Campaign for Aboriginal Young People. It was launched in May this year by the Governor of New South Wales, Marie Bashir, and the response has been phenomenal. The campaign has a long list of high-profile supporters, including the former New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Nick Cowdery; former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser; former Justice of the High Court, the Hon. Michael Kirby; and there is an equally long list of grassroots organisations behind it as well. It seeks to change the shameful over-representation of Aboriginal young people in custody in New South Wales by increasing community based and culturally-specific prevention, early intervention and treatment services.

In my home state of South Australia, we now have a community working group to advocate for the adoption of a justice reinvestment approach in those communities which need it most. Members include the Law Society of South Australia, the South Australian Victim Support Service, Aboriginal elders, the South Australian Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement and university academics. The members of this working group share a vision of strong, safe and thriving communities with less crime and low incarceration rates, and they believe a justice reinvestment approach will get us there.

In the Northern Territory, the Making Justice Work campaign also brings together a wide range of groups with a common interest in effective responses to crime. Their guiding principles include: more resources for measures that reduce crime by dealing with its underlying causes; keeping young people out of the criminal justice system where possible; and working with offenders to set them up for success, not failure.

In Western Australia, a coalition of groups, including Outcare, the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, UnitingCare Australia, the Western Australian Council of Social Service and the Western Australian Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies has been advocating for a justice reinvestment approach in that state for a number of years. In 2010, the work of these groups led the Community Development and Justice Committee of the Western Australian parliament to recommend that a justice reinvestment approach be piloted in Western Australia. This recommendation has not yet been acted upon and the groups are working hard to progress this.

In Queensland, Project 10% is a community campaign led by the Murri Watch Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Legal and Advocacy Service, and Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, or ANTaR, Queensland. Project 10% aims to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland prisons, and justice reinvestment is one of its key strategies.

In Victoria, the Smart Justice project, led by the Federation of Community Legal Centres, seeks to enhance the safety of Victorians by promoting understanding of criminal justice policies which are effective, based on good evidence and comply with human rights. Justice reinvestment is one such policy. Smart Justice has called for research, evaluation and pilot programs to determine the viability and impact of justice reinvestment in Victoria.

In the ACT, researchers at the ANU's National Centre for Indigenous Studies are taking the lead and recently held a forum exploring the need for justice reinvestment in Australia. I will speak in the future about that forum and some fascinating insights from the international guests who attended.

At the national level, both the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples and ANTaR are playing an active role in advocating for justice reinvestment as a way to address the shameful over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian prisons.

In conclusion, the take-home message from all this is pretty clear. Politicians of all persuasions and at all levels of government need to look up and take note of the urgent need for a new approach to criminal justice in this country. Community momentum for justice reinvestment is building, and it cannot and must not be ignored.

If Democrats and Republicans in the United States can find it within themselves to put aside their differences and offer bipartisan support for justice reinvestment, then surely we here in Australia can do it too.

As a federal senator, I am committed to finding and working with like-minded politicians across the country, no matter what their political allegiance, to progress a justice reinvestment approach in Australia. The stakes are too high to play politics on this issue. The economic and social costs of soaring incarceration rates are too great, and the lives of our young people too precious, to blithely continue along a criminal justice path-the abject policy failure we have been following for the last 25 years.

I urge the federal government to demonstrate strong national leadership on this issue and commit to working with the states and territories to encourage the uptake of a justice reinvestment approach across the country. This is the surest way to empty our jails and, paradoxically, make our communities safer.

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