Better policies, not more jails, needed to address prison overcrowding: Deakin expert

Media release
01 February 2018

The Victorian Government should consider changing its policies rather than building more jails to turn around that state’s crime rates and prison overcrowding, according to a Deakin University criminology expert.

Dr Emma Ryan, criminology course director with Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said overcrowding in Victorian prisons was more a result of policies than increased crime rates.

“There is currently a significant problem with overcrowding in Victorian prisons but this is not because more crime is being committed,” Dr Ryan said.

“Rather it is linked to changes in Government policies around the provision of bail and remand, mandatory sentencing practices, reduced access to welfare for young people and inadequate post-release support for offenders.

“This overcrowding is evident in the entire justice system, and is likely the cause of the unsettled behaviour we have seen recently, particularly in our juvenile justice system.”

Dr Ryan, who researches policing and criminal justice, said that Government policies reflected a reliance on jail as a short-term, vote winning response to vast social problems which result in criminal activity.

“There is little evidence to support imprisonment as an economically rational or effective way to reduce crime – history shows us this clearly,” she said.

“If imprisonment worked to deter or prevent crime surely there should be virtually no crime after 250 years of building prisons to punish people.

“Altering policies to reflect our vast knowledge about the root causes of offending, such as socio-economic disadvantage, family violence, drug and alcohol use, would go a long way to helping us towards a society where building more prisons was not seen as an effective way to address the very broad problem of crime.”

Dr Ryan acknowledged that there was a place for prisons in dealing with those who committed serious crimes and posed a threat to the community, however she said many people could be more effectively handled in other ways.

“It remains the case that public safety is an imperative and some people pose a risk that requires their incarceration so it is likely that we will always need to provide secure environments for dangerous offenders,” she said.

“However harsh conditions and extreme control characterise prison environments in Australia and the evidence is clear that this approach does little to rehabilitate or reintegrate people back into society.

“Rather, we see a kind of revolving door where people go in and out of jail, marred by criminal records which make stable housing and good jobs difficult to attain. Prison in this context produces a pipeline of people who are not welcome in society and stay forever at the margins.”

Dr Ryan said that as many offenders as possible, especially young offenders, should be kept out of prison because of its harmful effects. She provides the following diversion options to help keep people out of prisons:

  • Community sentencing - This includes support for social wellbeing and access to appropriately resourced treatment, education and behaviour change programs informed by an evidence-based perspective on the economic and social drivers of crime rather than on ‘correcting’ bad individuals in prisons, such as the US-based Justice Reinvestment strategies.
  • Restorative justice programs - Offenders must make amends to victims via various mediated and negotiated methods. These are designed to reintegrate offenders and foster what is termed a ‘self-sanctioning conscience’.
  • Increased provision of prevention programs – These programs emphasise post-release support, improved police/community relationships in vulnerable communities, provide mentors for young offenders and greater support for children in state care.
  • Decriminalisation of certain behaviours – Seeing drug use as a health problem before it becomes a crime problem, for example.
  • Family support - Provision of support for parents and carers of young offenders such as Positive Parenting Programs to help strengthen relationships and reduce negative role modelling.

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