Victoria’s prison population is skyrocketing. Numbers increased by 67 per cent over the past decade, to an unprecedented level. Prison population growth is far outpacing general population growth.
This comes at a price. Victoria’s prisons now cost more than $1 billion per year.
But there are bigger costs. Communities are less safe when prisons are overused and misused. Of those who go to prison, too many reoffend. Just under half of Victorian prisoners return to prison within two years of release.
In the right circumstances, prison alternatives—like diversion and community-based programs—can be more effective and less expensive than prison.
Imprisonment may entrench disadvantage, for the people sent to prison, and their families. Victoria shows some worrying trends. Over the past decade the number of:
- female prisoners increased by 75% (compared with 66% for male prisoners)
- Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander prisoners increased by 147% (compared with 62% for non-Indigenous prisoners).
The upshot? Some of the most vulnerable Victorians are dislocated from family and community, risk harm to health and wellbeing, and struggle to find housing and jobs on release.
So what’s the answer? How can we create safer, fairer communities when responding to crime?
Causes of crime are complex, but any sound approach needs to recognise the role of social and economic disadvantage in offending. Half of Victoria’s prisoners come from six per cent of postcodes. About 40 per cent have a mental health condition. Most male prisoners are unemployed before entering prison. Education levels are very low. Homelessness is common prior to entry, particularly for women.
“Few women in custody are serious violent offenders, most have caring responsibilities, many are the victims of violent relationships and offend under the influence of drugs or to support drug use.”
We can ‘start from the start’ and address underlying causes of crime. A justice reinvestment approach redirects money spent on prisons to community programs that help stop crime occurring in the first place. This includes housing, education, job training, child protection and family violence programs. Communities like Cowra in NSW are throwing their support behind these initiatives.
When Victorians were asked to choose between building more prisons and increasing the use of alternatives, 74 per cent preferred the latter…
When offending does occur, we expect the justice system to tackle specific problem behaviours and help prevent reoffending. Warehousing people in prison does not work. There are alternatives, like the community-based approaches of ‘problem-solving’ courts: the Drug Court of Victoria, Koori Courts and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre. These places change lives, working with offenders on treatment and rehabilitation that keeps them out of court and improves community safety.
There’s strong community support for prison alternatives. When Victorians were asked to choose between building more prisons and increasing the use of alternatives, 74 per cent preferred the latter, particularly for offenders experiencing mental illness, and for young, drug-addicted and non-violent offenders.
And community-based approaches save money. Prison costs $290 per offender per day. Community corrections orders cost $25.
Sometimes, however, prisons are the answer to serious offending. But they need to be places where offenders can rehabilitate and transition back to the community. VCOSS supports greater ‘throughcare’ for people when leaving prison, providing housing, healthcare and employment support. Women can particularly benefit from access to a transition centre that helps them prepare for release, prevents reoffending, and reduces homelessness and unemployment on return to the community.
We also need to address the massive spike in remand rates. The growing remand population is the main driver of Victoria’s unsustainable imprisonment rates.
Skyrocketing prison numbers aren’t a good thing for Victoria. It’s not smart. It can make people who are already disadvantaged even more disadvantaged. Justice reinvestment and community-based programs are often better places for prison dollars. Community safety depends on it.
Top image: Kim Daram/CC