The missing piece in responding to repeat offending is the community that offenders are released into, a Deakin University psychology expert will argue at this week’s Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology Conference.
Dr Terry Bartholomew, a senior lecturer with Deakin’s School of Psychology, will draw on research published this month in the Deakin Law Review (with Dr Lesley Hardcastle) to underline that current approaches to reducing crime are being systematically undermined by what happens to offenders after their sentence is complete.
According to Dr Bartholomew, and his graduate research team, the environment the ex-prisoner returns to has a great influence on whether they are able to stop offending.
“The evidence is clear, if someone who exits prison has access to housing and employment, and genuine opportunities to reintegrate back into society, they are significantly less likely to reoffend,” he said.
Questions on job applications about criminal records, queries about previous residences over the last five years on rental forms, and increasing levels of post release control are identified as obstacles to genuine reintegration for offenders.
“The notion of having paid one’s debt to society is a misnomer when we keep punishing people by limiting their access to social resources,” Dr Bartholomew said.
“We need to look beyond the institutions for ways to have a bigger impact on reoffending. Although our more systematised approaches to offender rehabilitation have had some impact on reoffending, the fact remains that in almost all Australian jurisdictions, people returning to prison far outnumber first time prisoners.”
Between 1998 and 2008, the national imprisonment rate (per capita) rose 20 per cent, culminating in net expenditure on prisons exceeding $2.6 billion per annum.
Approximately 58 per cent of all current prisoners have served previous terms of imprisonment, while 39.3 per cent of all persons given a prison sentence are re-imprisoned within two years.
According to Dr Bartholomew, figures such as these underline problems that are contributed to by conditions in the community the prisoner returns to.
To better understand these conditions, Dr Bartholomew and colleagues conducted Australia’s first study of community views about ex-prisoner reintegration, and collected data from a representative sample of over 2500 Victorians.
Their study highlighted that the Victorian community is concerned about crime, particularly violent crime, and they would like to feel safer. Although they can see the value in governmental policies that help offenders to access social resources, they are not prepared to play a role in this interactive process.
“People can see that a policy that helps an ex-prisoner obtain housing can reduce reoffending, but they are not prepared to live near an ex-offender,” Dr Bartholomew said.
“Similarly, they support employment policies, but would not employ or like to work with an ex-prisoner. This is a real problem, because, unlike other justice system responses, offender reintegration requires active community involvement in order to be successful.”
The data indicates that this divide between policy support and readiness to play a role can be traced to different causes. For some, this position reflects a ‘not in my backyard’ rationale, but for others it is about fear. A third group has the belief that offenders have forfeited their right to social resources by committing a crime.
“Regardless of their origin, such views represent real obstacles to the success of initiatives that seek to reduce reoffending by assisting offenders with adjustment back into the community,” Dr Bartholomew said.
“If a football player returned from suspension, but they were limited in their access to team resources, and then other players refused to play with them, we would understand if they reacted in a negative way. But that isn’t far removed from what we are doing as a society with offenders.”
The survey indicates that fear of crime and negative reactions to offenders are reduced when knowledge about the justice system is increased.
“Research demonstrates that, if people are better informed about what type of offenders pose a risk and which don’t, as well as the social benefits of reintegrative ideas, their views about active involvement would change. And changes in the social climate are required if we are to meaningfully reduce reoffending,” he said.
The 24th Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology Conference – Crime and the regions: from the local to regional, national and international, convened by Deakin University, runs from today (Wednesday 28 September) to Friday 30 September. The full conference program is available at http://www.deakin.edu.au/arts-ed/shhs/events/anzsoc2011/final-booklet.pdf