Australian prisons are severely overcrowded. Much crime is drug related. Some 75% of prisoners have a substance abuse problem. The majority of prisoners are not rehabilitated by their prison experience as evidenced by high recidivism rates, particularly for First Nation people. A holistic, whole of community response is required founded in restorative justice and justice reinvestment.
Drug offenders who pose a serious risk to the community need to be imprisoned. Some may need to remain in prison for long periods of time, perhaps for the rest of their lives.
However, Australian prisons are ill equipped to provide drug rehabilitation services and correctional authorities are powerless to deal with the dysfunctional family and social circumstances to which prisoners return – and which often results in re-offending.
Australian and international experience demonstrates it is not possible to “punish crime away”. Reform is needed, and it must be founded in restorative justice.
In considering new approaches to reduce crime generally, and drug related crimes in particular, it is essential to achieve a balance between good social policy and law enforcement. Evidence for the success of this approach exists in Northern European countries, where they have the world’s lowest imprisonment and recidivism rates.
Harm minimization is central (Australia21 report)
Australia21’s third report on drug law reform www.australia21.org.au advocates a balanced policy approach founded in ‘harm minimisation’.
Any changes must take account of the social, health and economic issues inherent in Australia’s drug problem for users while supporting law enforcement to strongly target the organised criminal market place for drugs.
A significant number of prisoners are unable to exercise bail provisions as they have drug or alcohol issues and no appropriate accommodation. Some 30% are either held beyond parole release date or re-imprisoned due to parole breaches, often due to substance abuse issues. A large number with substance abuse issues receive very short sentences, weeks or a few months, creating a costly churn factor and occupying expensive secure cells. Sadly, prisoners often graduate to higher level drugs after entering prison
Significant changes in policy settings are required to support correctional and other agencies to reduce social breakdown, crime and increasing imprisonment rates.
Support for community custody options
Magistrates, correctional professionals, criminologists, First Nation Leaders, professionals working in government and NGOs favor, where appropriate, community custody options linked to holistic family and community strengthening responses in disadvantaged communities across Australia. They argue that social breakdown, including illicit drug use, crime and recidivism, would thereby be reduced and the costly prison accommodation problem made more manageable.
The primary role of relevant support agencies in First Nation and lower socio-economic communities should be to act as enablers and capacity builders. The aim would be to empower community leaders to develop enterprise and strengthen self-sufficiency in the people of the community, thereby creating strong families and communities. These agencies should be driven by an ethos of not doing things for or to people in lower socio-economic communities, but rather of enabling them to own and deliver the essential services required to build strong families and communities.
While a number of small (150 to 250 bed) high security facilities should be retained for dangerous, intractable and long-term prisoners, we should move away from the failed large prison precincts model. There should be a greater focus on effective rehabilitation and reduction in the rate of recidivism.
Small 24/7 supervised community custody centers
For the majority of prisoners, small 24/7 supervised therapeutic community custody centers would be a better option.
These should offer detox and substance abuse treatment, family and community strengthening (including cultural healing), mentoring and support services for individual offenders – always making sure they are relevant to the offenders’ family and community circumstances.
Prisons are disconnected from offenders’ communities and are incapable of effectively delivering these services.
The role of Community Corrections should be expanded to incorporate enabling and capacity building in First Nation and other lower socio-economic communities in conjunction with their regulatory supervision function.
In lieu of funding prison expansion, State Governments should contract First Nation and community organisations to provide the therapeutic community custody options mentioned above.
Benefits include huge cost savings and reduced recidivism
Thousands of offenders can be safely dealt with in this less costly and more effective community custody option, with huge budget savings and less crime through reduced recidivism.
Prison remand populations would drop, achieving significant cost savings, as courts could divert many remanded offenders to 24/7 supervised community custody options where they can immediately commence rehabilitation programs, including substance abuse treatment. Successful completion of these programs while on remand may result in shorter prison sentences for the offenders further reducing prison costs.
Provision of 24/7 supervised therapeutic community custody options that are owned and operated by First Nation communities on Traditional Land would help make these lands economically viable. It would provide meaningful jobs for First Nation people as they work to rehabilitate their people and strengthen their local communities.
Correctional jurisdictions should be empowered to commence trialing the above approach in concert with the various harm minimisation, education and law enforcement strategies outlined in the Australia21 report. The potential savings to Australian government budgets over the next 15 years are enormous.
Keith Hamburger AM had extensive senior executive experience in the Qld Public Sector including Deputy Director General (Corrective Programs), Department of Welfare Services, CEO of the Department of the Public Service Board and Director General of the Qld Corrective Services Commission 1988 – 1997.
From 1997 Keith worked as a consultant in private practice and in 2000 established Knowledge Consulting Pty Ltd to provide policy and operational consulting services to correctional jurisdictions in Australia and internationally. www.knowledgeconsulting.com.au. Keith has visited correctional jurisdictions to study policies and operations in New Zealand, Asia, Northern Europe, the UK and America. He has carried out significant correctional consulting assignments throughout Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and in PNG.