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Prisons in Victoria, 2010

Prison cellPrisons in Victoria, 2010

How well are Australia’s prisons serving the community? One major Royal Commission recommendation was that the community constantly keep watch on what is happening in prisons. Here, CLA’s Keith McEwan does just that, for the Victorian prison system.


By Keith McEwan*

Why do prisons exist?

It is claimed that they are needed to:

  • protect society from law-breakers and are as necessary as hospitals and schools;
  • punish people for their crimes;
  • deter likely offenders; and
  • rehabilitate offenders.

It is considered that without prisons, the alternative for criminals would be transportation, exile or execution.

Who goes to prison?

People apprehended for committing minor offences and major crimes ranging from civic violations to murder. Daily, individuals are acting unlawfully by assaulting people (including family members), stealing from houses and businesses, fraudulently gaining funds from governments and shareholders, engaging in racial abuse, behaving dangerously while under the influence of alcohol and drugs, stealing motor cars and conducting shonky businesses, to name some of the present-day, frequently-occurring crimes.

Who ends up in prison depends on who is caught performing anti-social, people-harming practices classified as unlawful, and who is brought to account by law enforcement agencies like the police and the courts.

The role of police

Police have state-given power to investigate, apprehend, charge, detain and prosecute people suspected of breaking any one of about 10,000 laws in Australia which, according to Professor and criminal law expert, Simon Bronitt**, have been enacted by governing bodies or decreed by regulation. This power is often abused by over-zealous or power-conscious police officers anxious to make an arrest, who are notorious for fabricating evidence. However, most people put faith in their police to use discretionary powers wisely so that justice will be done.

The training and education of police personnel is limited or enhanced by the government of the day, as is the retention rate of police staff. Problems arise when the police ‘brotherhood’ disregard progressive government directives and act as laws unto themselves. There are still many police members who are unwilling to approach people acting unruly such as mentally-disturbed people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, without reaching for their capsicum spray or guns.

There are still too many police officers who over-react when they come across a car possibly stolen, and so they engage in a high-speed car chase that could – and frequently does – result in loss of life…all for the sake of a stolen car which can be replaced. 

There are still too many police members who like to stop and search the person or the car being driven by a dark-skinned man in case, by their way of thinking, he looks like he might be up to no good.

New laws brought in to prevent acts of terrorism will test the discretionary powers of police as they have the power to arrest, detain, search and hold a person without charge or warrant. Subconscious bias and prejudice against ethnic groups could arise, and innocent people could be detained without just cause.

Recent incidents of the contamination of DNA materials held at police laboratories, resulting in the wrongful imprisonment of innocent people, is a cause for concern.

Then there is the ongoing practice of confining intoxicated people in cells at police stations that are not only unfit for human habitation but are still fitted with obvious “hanging points”. In any given day there are many mentally ill people being held in police lock-ups in Victoria, putting them at grave risk.

It is disturbing to still hear some police officers proclaiming that it’s acceptable for a few innocent people to get locked up if it prevents guilty ones from escaping punishment. This is the reverse of the considered community opinion that: “It`s better for one hundred guilty people to walk free rather than have an innocent person imprisoned .”

The role of courts in judging and sentencing

There is a hierarchy of courts in Victoria, such as the Magistrates Court, the County Court, the Supreme Court (and then, on appeal to the national High Court). Courts are established to pass judgement on people accused of breaking the law.  Juries are involved in most County and Supreme Court criminal trials.

Various options are available for the juries and law enforcers when hearing and sentencing people accused of offences and crimes – unless the government of the day enacts mandatory penalties for certain unlawful acts, effectively taking sentencing away from impartial judges so the government`s political will can be enforced.  This dangerous practice, which often reflects ill-informed, populist fears, negates the community’s notion of a fair trial.

If the accused is found guilty, court sentences can be:

  • fines,
  • community service orders (such as performing useful work at public parks and gardens and schools grounds),
  • restorative justice (with information exchanged between victims and offenders at face-to-face meetings aiming to address the harm caused by the offences),
  • suspended sentences (usually for non-violent crimes – sentences of imprisonment not put into immediate effect, with the offender released under specific conditions), and
  • what should always be considered a “last resort”:  prison.

The role of defence lawyers is vital in ensuring that the accused receives a fair trial under Australia`s adversarial legal system. The system usually leaves the judge acting as an umpire as legal counsel engage in point scoring instead of being directly involved in discovering the truth, which is theoretically the role of both prosecution and defence.

As many of those attending court have limited resources, the importance of legal aid by way of government-funded defence lawyers, is essential if justice is to prevail. In recent times, government funding for legal aid centres has been radically reduced, leaving many people in court, facing a jail sentence, but inadequately defended.

The wealth and social connections of those facing trial can give the well-off an advantage, especially if costly court appeals are to be undertaken and vital, favourable evidence can be obtained and presented to the court.

The playing field at the court of justice is far from level and appeals from community and legal aid centres for adequate funds must be heeded if justice for all is to prevail.

Some prison statistics

The Victorian prison population has increased by about 55% over the past 10 years. There are about 3,800 people in custody in Victoria, with most of them held securely in the state`s 13 prisons. On any given day, several hundred of the total number are being held, for an indefinite time, in police cells or “lock-ups”. Imprisoning a single prisoner costs about $269 a day, on average, in Australian detention facilities, or about $98,185 per inmate each year. (Source: Report on Government Services, 2009, quoting Productivity Commission figures for 2007-8, see figure 8.13).

It is estimated that 50-80% of prisoners have a drug or alcohol dependence, 70-80% are suffering from a psychiatric disorder, and 43% have personality disorders. About 80% of imprisoned women in Victoria are mothers and sole parents so the hardship of imprisonment impacts on family life to a greater degree in their case.

In some prisons, the practice of putting mentally-ill inmates causing trouble into solitary confinement for 23 hours a day simply increases the distress and anxiety, so that they are being punished for behaviour that is part of their mental illness.

Profiles of prison inmates

The recent past of many who go to jail shows that they were likely to have been:

  • alienated from society,
  • unemployed,
  • abusing drugs or alcohol,
  • committing welfare fraud,
  • suffering mental illness,
  • gambling to extreme,
  • stealing goods and cars,
  • driving under the influence of alcohol,
  • defaulting on fines,
  • violating a parole order,
  • abusing family members, and/or
  • defying control orders.

A small minority, around 10%, are in prison for violent crimes such as assault and murder.

The 13 prisons in Victoria

ARARAT prison in rural Victoria opened in 1967, replacing the old Ballarat jail. It is a low-to- medium security prison, housing 374 males in 1-2-3-bedroom accommodation. About 50% of inmates are sex offenders, the others being mostly special-needs prisoners, including those requiring protection.

BARWON prison near Geelong opened in 1990. This maximum security prison accommodates 353 males  and has a high security Acacia Unit, with two protection units and three mainstream units. It has the equivalent of a ‘Super Max’, or total isolation prison, within its walls. Alleged terrorist suspects are normally housed here.

BEECHWORTH Correctional Centre in northern Victoria started operating in 2005 after the 144-year- old Beechworth prison closed in 2004. This minimum security centre accommodates 120 males in communal living and self-catering units so they can engage in pre-release activities.

DAME PHYLLIS FROST CENTRE at Deer Park in Melbourne’s western suburbs is a maximum-medium security centre for remanded and sentenced female prisoners, a total of 260 of them. This privately-built prison with single cells and ensuite facilities opened in 2000. The government has taken back control after the contract of private operators ended, allegedly for failure to stem the flow of drugs in the prison. Corrections Victoria runs the centre.

HM DHURRINGILE in central Victoria opened in 1965. It is a pre-release, minimum security prison with on-site employment, accommodating 160 males.

FULHAM, near Sale in eastern Victoria, is a medium-maximum security prison which opened in 1997. The prison contains a protection unit and offers treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. It accommodates 845 males and has been privately run since 2003. 

LANGI KAL KAL is a minimum security prison situated at Trawalla, 140km west of Melbourne. Once a youth training centre, it became an adult prison for 120 males in 1993, offering low-to-medium protection.

HM LODDON near Castlemaine was designed and built at a cost of $29 million in 1990 for unit management, housing a total of 390 males. It is a medium-security, mainstream prison offering release preparation and drug rehabilitation for HIV prisoners, along with intellectually-disabled people. Prisoners work on industrial projects on site. It is said that many serving time in other prisons would like to move to Loddon.

MARNGONEET Correctional Centre (the name means ‘to make new’ in the local Wathaurong Aboriginal language), is located about 70km west of Melbourne, at Lara. It is a medium-security prison accommodating 300 males with a moderate-to-high risk of re-offending and who have six months or more of their sentence left to serve when they transfer in. Operated by Corrections Victoria, there are clinics for sex offenders, and for people addicted to drugs and alcohol. The prison aims to balance security and therapy while minimising institutionalism.

MELBOURNE ASSESSMENT PRISON, located in the city, was built in 1989 at a cost of $80 million. It became a maximum security reception prison for all male prisoners in 1997, holding 277 males and with a 15-bed psychiatric facility.

METROPOLITAN REMAND CENTRE, opened in 2006 at suburban Ravenhall, 20kms west of Melbourne, is a maximum security prison to accommodate 600 unsentenced males in single cells. Authorities say it is a secure environment aimed at maintaining family ties, with good access to legal services.

PORT PHILLIP PRISON, opened in 1997, is a privately-operated, maximum security prison located at Laverton North, just west of Melbourne. It accommodates 710 prisoners on remand, along with those classified as high, maximum and medium security risks. It has a 20-unit inpatient hospital.

TARRENGOWER, located in the picturesque country town of Maldon, was opened in 1988 as a minimum security prison for women. It accommodates 54 people in 10 self-contained units.

Prisons are clearly a function of the state. People give government the ultimate power of depriving individuals of their liberty. This sacred right should not pass to private entities because they can never be fully responsible for ensuring the inherent human rights and civil liberties of the citizen, as governments are. Attempts to contract away people’s rights to the private sector are doomed to fail, sooner rather than later, and ultimately the government will – and must – be held responsible by the people.

Rehabilitating people in prison

Many ex-prisoners claim that there is little or no rehabilitation in prisons. They feel that, while being deprived of their liberty, they should not be deprived of their dignity. This occurs, they say, because they are sometimes controlled by mean-spirited, usually poorly-educated and -trained prison officers.

Help in changing their behaviour is vital if they are to advance their education and participate in programs to gain employment, social skills and the ability to deal with behavioural and health issues such as violence and substance abuse on release. It is very much in the community’s interest that this occurs, because the community does not want them to re-offend.

The future of prisoners depends a lot on the selection, training and management of prison officers, who have complete control over them. Unfortunately, some caring officers don`t last long in the job.  If a negative attitude of the peer group is permitted to permeate a particular prison, many good people leave the service.

Most people who go to prison are not well educated enough to write about it, so the main commentators are often high-flyers who “inadvertently” ended up in jail. The harshness of prison life is revealed by well-known business man, Rodney Adler, sent to jail in NSW after the collapse of the HIH insurance company in 2005. In The Bulletin, 11 December 2007, he is reported as saying:

“Jail is degrading, horrible, at times barbaric, mind-numbingly boring and a waste of time. It does not rehabilitate prisoners or prepare them for a normal life outside. I was struck by the number of inmates who were jailed simply because they could not afford legal representation or Legal Aid would not help them. I saw raw violence and the crushing effect that drugs and a life of crime had on young people. If I tried to describe the prison system in a few words, they would be Darwinian, degrading, boring and pointless.

“I accept that prison is a punishment, but certain officers of the Department  of Corrective Services, unfortunately, see fit to go beyond their job description and make life hell for prisoners…Prison authorities, knowing I was Jewish, placed me in a cell block made up of many Muslims sympathetic to Hezbollah.”

In Victoria, the high-profile criminal lawyer, Andrew Fraser, had a thriving practice over 30 years but was then sentenced to seven years jail in December 2001 for importing a commercial quantity of cocaine. In his book, Court in the Middle, he details insights he gained while being confined in two maximum-security prisons in Victoria.

At the Melbourne Assessment Prison, he was shocked by the language of the jail governor and most of the “screws”, with every second word being, “f…”. He was given no instructions as to jail procedures and regulations, stating: “No doubt it`s because you are easier to control if you are kept in the dark!”

Describing the prison cells, Fraser wrote that there were camp stretchers, army-type blankets and two putrid pillows without pillow slips.

“There is the prevailing stench of stale urine. My cell had been inhabited by people who had lost all self-esteem and human waste had permeated the floor and walls.Tension is very high, everyone is edgy and anxious, blow-ups occur easily, fights break out. There is danger of stabbing in the food queue.”

A key factor in this circle of violence is the gratuitous violence by screws (prison warders) on prisoners, he wrote, such as smashing a prisoner`s head against the wall and punching him in the face for back-chatting. “Prisoners won`t complain as nothing will be done, and they will suffer in return.”

Serving four years and ten months at Port Phillip and the extra-tough Barwon prison, Fraser witnessed the rapes of young prisoners. He describes the experience of one young man who, after constantly resisting the sexual advances of another prisoner, was taken to the toilet, then had his anus slit with a razor blade. He passed out: when he regained consciousness he found himself bent over the toilet being raped from behind. He has now lost his reason and his drug use has gone through the roof.

Strip searches were a regular part of prison life and personal items were continually confiscated on the pretext that they had not been officially approved. There was no avenue for raising a complaint or a request.

‘Lock-downs’, with prisoners confined to their cells for 16 hours are constant and the author states that he endured 132 days of lock-downs during his three years at Port Phillip prison, run by a private company.

Referring to the mentally ill in prison, Fraser writes:

“ I was dumfounded by the number of mentally ill people in the prison system…in fact they should be in proper facilities for the mentally infirm.When I was at Port Phillip a young Aboriginal prisoner came into the unit and he was clearly not well mentally. He was screaming and shouting and started smashing up his cell.Then a six-member riot squad appeared wearing helmets with visors and holding shields and long batons. After being severely beaten the young Aborigine was dragged out, covered in blood and barely conscious.He was then thrown down the steel steps to the ground floor. He was removed and not seen again.”

Fraser maintains there is no rehabilitation in jail. “The screws don`t care. Sentence Management doesn`t care. The entire existence of a prison officer is dedicated to counting crooks four times a day, watching television, being fed by crooks, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee – generally doing as little as is humanly possible.”

When The Age newspaper interviewed Debbie Kilroy, an ex-prisoner, who later became a lawyer and recipient of the Order of Australia Medal, she said:

“More than 80% of women in prison are there for drug-related crimes, usually related to childhood sexual abuse and physical violence; 89% of women in prison have been sexually abused before they even hit the gate, and 98% have experienced physical violence.The only way they can deal with it, because they`re living in poverty as well, is to self-medicate and that`s when you have to start using illegal drugs and that`s when you collide with crime, basically. If we released all the women jailed for drug-related crime, there`d be hardly anyone in there.”

Indigenous prisoners

In Australia, Indigenous people are 6 times more likely to be arrested than non-Indigenous people and 13 times more likely to be imprisoned. Most criminologists agree that there is a systemic bias against Aborigines in Australia. More than 70% of children held in detention in Australia under the age of 14 are Aboriginal. Indigenous youths are almost 30 times more likely than their non-Indigenous peers to be held in custody. In the Northern Territory, 83% of the prison population is Indigenous; in Western Australia, it`s 41%.

In Victoria, the police process an average of 3361 Aboriginal offenders each year, over 14% of the total Indigenous population in the state, with Aboriginal people currently comprising 4.5% of the total prison population…roughly 50% more than could be expected on the 3% Indigenous share of the population.

The findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991, published in 11 volumes, reveal in great detail why Aboriginal people were over-represented in custody at a rate 29 times greater than the non-Indigenous people. The main reason for the deaths was the over-representation: in fact, Aborigines were dying in custody at no greater rate than non-Aboriginal people…there were just, proportionately, so many more Aborigines locked up.

When analysing the profiles of the 99 Aborigines who died in custody in the nine-year study period, the Royal Commission found that 43 of them had experienced childhood separation from their natural family. This startling discovery led later to another inquiry into what became known as the “Stolen Children” (and later as the “Stolen Generations”) Inquiry, as the hidden history was unravelled. The case histories of some of the thousands of those who were forcibly removed from their families over decades is published in the book, ‘Bringing Them Home’.

A study of these publications will help to explain the disadvantaged and unequal position of Aboriginal people in Australian society – socially, economically and culturally – and why young Aboriginal people are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system from an early age and are therefore more likely as adults to attract custodial sentences due to their longer juvenile criminal histories.

It will also explain why Aboriginal people display higher rates of failure on community-based correction orders and parole than non-Aboriginal offenders, resulting in a disproportionate increase in their custodial numbers due to failure to abide by court orders.

In an Overview, featured with the 339 Recommendations in the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Chief Commissioner, Elliott Johnston QC, included a chapter, ‘The Importance of History’. He made no apology for doing so. His stated aim was to bring knowledge to non-Aboriginal people: the known history is a principal thesis of the Report. Some extracts are as follows:

That Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land without benefit of treaty, agreement or compensation is generally known. But I think little known is the amount of brutality and bloodshed that was involved in enforcing on the ground what was pronounced by law. Aboriginal people were deprived of their land and if they showed resistance they were summarily dealt with. The loss of land meant the destruction of the Aboriginal economy which everywhere was based upon hunting and foraging. And the land use adopted by the settlers drastically reduced the population of animals to be hunted and plants to be foraged. And the loss of the land threatened the Aboriginal culture which all over Australia was based upon land and relationship to the land.

“These were the most dramatic effects of European colonisation supplemented by the decimating effects of introduced disease to which the Aboriginal people had no resistance. These matters are understood to a very imperfect degree by non-Aboriginal society.

“But the facts of later policies and their effects are even less well known to the general population. Having reduced the original inhabitants to a condition, in many places, of abject dependency, the colonial governments decided on a policy of protection which had two main thrusts: Aboriginal people were swept up into reserves and missions where they were supervised as to every detail of their lives and there was a deliberate policy of undermining and destroying their spiritual and cultural beliefs. The other aspect of that policy as it developed was that Aboriginal children of mixed race descent – usually Aboriginal mother and non-Aboriginal father – were removed from their family and the land, placed in institutions and trained to grow up as good European labourers or domestics.

“Those outside the reserves were usually to be found camping on river banks or on the outskirts of country towns where they were under the eye of non-Aboriginal police. Naturally, legislation varied from place to place and time to time but the effect was the same – control over the lives of the people. A person could not live on a reserve without permission, or leave and return after leaving without permission, or have a relative to live with them without permission, or work except under supervision. The extent of control seems incredible today. It was an offence to encourage or assist an Aboriginal person to leave a reserve. There were special laws about alcohol. On the reserves and missions the supervisors and missionaries had all power.

“ With loss of independence goes loss of self-esteem…

“From that history many things flow which are of central importance to the issue of Aboriginal over-representation in custody.”

Of the 339 Recommendations of the Royal Commission, No 92, ‘Imprisonment as a Last Resort’ states:

“That governments which have not already done so should legislate to enforce the principle that imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort”.

This key recommendation is often talked about, but not wholeheartedly practised by State and Territory authorities. So the imprisonment rates of indigenous Australians continue to rise.

Mentally ill prisoners

Have jails become the new asylums for Australia`s mentally ill?

Mental Health Council of Australia chief executive John Mendoza said in 2006 that increasing numbers of mentally ill people were heading into prisons because of a failure to invest in early intervention.

“From the moment people with mental illnesses start to intersect with law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system, there needs to be diversion points. We urgently need to construct a model that ensures people with mental illness are not confined and incarcerated in conditions that exacerbate their conditions to the point where suicide and self-harm become part of the corrections system.”

Estimates of the number of mentally ill inmates in the general prison population range from about one-third to more than two-thirds, from about 33% to 70%.

Ex-prisoners claim that prison officers don`t recognise mental illness so mentally ill prisoners are seen as troublemakers and put into solitary confinement. As Robert Lewin, forensic psychiatrist explains:

“If you put someone who is paranoid and agitated and greatly distressed in a solitary confinement setting for 23 hours a day, you cannot expect that to have a calming effect”.

Solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates is archaic, according to Alvin F Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school.

“Solitary makes psychotic prisoners more psychotic and prisoners who are already depressed likelier to commit suicide.”

The Australian Medical Association in its Journal has highlighted what has been common knowledge among legal and medical circles for years – that the Australian prison system has become the convenient dumping ground for the country`s psychiatric problems.

When de-institutionalisation of inmates of psychiatric facilities began in the early 1970s, Australia had more than 30,000 psychiatric beds for a population of 15 million. Thirty-plus years later, with a population of more than 22 million, there are only 8,000 private and public psychiatric beds.

If the state is to honour its duty of care and treat all prisoners humanely, solitary confinement in prisons must be prohibited and mentally ill inmates who need to be restrained must be transferred to a secure psychiatric hospital where they are treated in a clinical rather than a custodial environment and where all staff are trained to deal with mental illness.

Some comparisons

In the community

In prisons

Psychiatric disorders



Substance abuse disorder



Personality disorder



Recidivism…half a chance?

Of the 3,800 people in custody in Victoria, 50% of the male prisoners and 38% of female prisoners have been in prison before and 44% of prisoners return to corrective services within two years of release. The main reason for re-offending is that the complex problems which led to their first imprisonment are not being addressed while they are incarcerated.

A precise figure for the rate of recidivism is hard to state as much crime goes unreported or there is lack of evidence on which to prosecute. However it is estimated that around 60% of those in custody Australia-wide have previously been imprisoned.

In a Corrections Research Paper, issued by the Victorian Department of Justice in June 2007 and entitled: ‘Who returns to prison’, it says that prisoners return to prison more quickly in the early months after release, with almost 40% doing so within 6 months and close to 70% within 12 months.

While detailing patterns of recidivism, the research paper does not examine WHY prisoners return to prison and indicates that future research should investigate a wider range of influences on re-offending, such as unemployment, drug and alcohol use, family relationships, housing – both pre-imprisonment and post-release – to examine the causal question of why prisoners return.

Among the challenges facing ex-prisoners, who have rates of mental illness far above those found in the general community, are issues such as :

  • returning to a poorly resourced community,
  • securing affordable accommodation,
  • linking up with family,
  • overcoming loneliness and a deep sense of alienation from society,
  • obtaining employment,
  • combating drug and alcohol abuse,
  • anger management, and
  • meeting parole requirements while coping with disorders and disabilities.

Looking beyond prisons

Most reasonable people will accept that imprisonment is imposed on criminal offenders as punishment and not for punishment despite the strident calls from vocal people who, in seeking revenge, want to “throw away the key” and restrict the living conditions of prisoners to basic necessities.

However, as American writer and prison reformer for more than 30 years, Angela Y Davis, points out, there is little public discussion about prisons. It is as though prisons are an inevitable fact of life, like birth and death, just ignored and left unmentioned. Most people view prisons as the main form of punishment for law-breakers; for them, abolishing prisons is simply unthinkable and implausible, so they can’t envisage a social order without prisons.

In her books, ‘Are Prisons Obsolete’ and ‘Prisons and Democracy’, Angela Davis explains that people take prisons for granted and are reluctant to face the realities hidden within them. No-one wants to go to prison and we tend to think of prison as disconnected from our lives.

“’ Criminals’ are in the collective imagination fantasized as undesirables who should be imprisoned, relieving people of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues affecting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.Mass unemployment in some communities, along with draconian drug laws, turns men, women and children into perfect candidates for prison.”

The realities of prison life are hidden from most people in the community: they are unaware of the ongoing expansion of prisons. People also don’t appreciate the increasing repression in the system created by way of classifications ranging from low, medium and maximum to prisons-within-prisons, called Super-Max.

Innocent people can spend years in Super-Max prisons. Four Muslims recently spent almost three years in the Victorian ‘Super-Max’ prison in relation to the “Benbrika’ terrorist trial. Though innocent until proven guilty, they were locked up in Guantanamo Bay-like conditions at Barwon prison before being completely acquitted at the trial. More innocent than most Australians – a court has declared that they are innocent – these four Muslims and their families receive no compensation for their being treated, while charged and on remand, like the worst criminals in the world.

Alternatives to prison sentences

Restorative Justice Scheme:

The scheme is an alternative to court procedures that could lead to imprisonment. The approach allows for exchanges of information between victims and offenders with the intention of addressing the harm caused by offences. Such exchanges usually occur in face-to-face meetings between the parties in conferences and result in agreements for offenders to do something to repair the harm they have caused.

The scheme allows victims to have a voice in the justice system, to say what has happened to them and to hear about the circumstances that led to them becoming victims of crime. Offenders can redeem themselves by agreeing to do a range of things to make up for what they have done.

Community-Based Orders:

These offer another alternative to a prison sentence – the court orders offenders to do unpaid work in the community instead of serving time. Such orders can be therapeutic and more cost-effective than imprisonment, while producing practical benefits to the community.

Suspended Sentences:

This form of punishment involves a sentence of imprisonment that is not imposed at the time, enabling the offender to stay free but on specific conditions and liable to serve the term of imprisonment if these conditions are breached. Suspended sentences give a judge or a magistrate an option to find that the offence is serious enough to warrant a jail term, but that immediate imprisonment is not appropriate in the particular circumstances of the case. Suspended sentences are used as an option in crimes of a non-violent nature, such as property offences.

Non-custodial sentencing options, such as suspended sentences, provide wider scope for rehabilitation and treatment and actually result in less re-offending. Options include:

  • treatment centres for drug addiction, alcohol abuse, anger management and mental health concerns in accessible locations to which offenders can be directed; and
  • secure residential facilities for homeless offenders.

Law and order populism

As a paper (Impacts of Law and Order Populism, December 2009) presented by the Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres explains:

Law and order populism tends to divide communities. It leads to higher levels of community conflict and criminalises marginalised communities.Law and order populism also diverts resources and support away from sound social policies and programs that may be more effective, cheaper and more humane ways to reduce crime.

Law and order has become ingrained as a big-ticket election item in just about every constituency in the Western world, enough to make or break a party`s fortune. So much so that, in a wide-scale study of the criminal justice systems of Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, authors found that contemporary criminal justice policies in each of these five countries have been specifically designed to appeal to voters rather than actually preventing or reducing crime. 

Politicians knowingly use “tough on crime” policies to obtain political advantage, despite the negative impacts – and the massive extra taxpayer cost – imposed on our society. Law and order policies fuel public expectations and demands for instant legislative solutions to complex social problems or particular horrific crimes.
Policies such as mandatory sentencing are viewed as signs of political strength. Crime ‘control’ becomes a tool by which governments seek to retain political power.

In such a twisted political climate, usually intensified by the lead-up to an election, many highly effective alternatives to prison are not used as often or funded as they should because of political fears that these successful options might be perceived publicly as ‘soft on crime and criminals’. 

We now understand that social inequalities and injustices influence and give rise to crime. But excessive ‘law and order’ (LO) policies divert resources and political support away from sound social policies and programs, education, social services and public resources. Campaigning on a LO ticket by LO politicians effectively commits a fraud on the electors: LO policies do not reduce crime over time, and they cost taxpayers massively more.

It`s time Australians accepted the reality that our greatly expanding prison system is failing to protect the public and rehabilitate the offenders, as the alarming recidivist rate demonstrates. With every jailed offender costing Australian taxpayers on average $98,185 a year, we must seek alternative ways so that each sentenced  offender can be involved in work, study (at all levels) and personal health and well-being programs – all aimed at enabling offenders to eventually re-join society as reformed citizens, contributing to the common good rather than taking from it.

This change of attitude will require creative government initiatives and informed public support. Are we, as a proud, democratic nation, up to the task?

Keith McEwan, CLA member, Bendigo, Victoria, January 2010

* Keith McEwan has been a prisoner visitor, and has mentored and looked after released prisoners over many decades.

**  Simon Bronitt is Director of the Centre for Excellence in Policing and Security at Griffith University, Qld.

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