Prisons: learning the right lessons
By J. Doreen Moulds*
In considering prison reform, it is useful to refer to high-profile cases, like that of the murder case of ABC reporter Jill Meagher by Adrian Bayley, to see what underlying lessons we should learn from them.
The anger that the Meagher family feel towards the Victorian Government for allowing a person of Bayley’s criminal record to be free to harm more women is understandable.
The trouble is that this case represents the tip of an iceberg. Unless there is fundamental law and prison reform, it is doubtful whether their well-intentioned efforts will in any way save another family from going through their trauma.
There are many factors which militate against just sentencing outcomes which ensure the safety of the community from the most serious of sex and child abuse crimes. All of these must be addressed to make a difference.
- The traditional priority of the law. Crimes against people are traditionally of lesser importance than crimes against property. Political interference of the wrong kind is a hindrance to the justice system overcoming that shadow of its past.
- Populist politicians who espouse the ‘tough on crime’ mantra go on to fashion mandatory sentencing laws which result in an exponential growth in the number of prisoners being held captive. The result is that those who are capable of the most heinous crimes are pushed into prison obscurity by the sheer weight of numbers and continual teething problems of constant expansion.
- Public fear and ignorance about the role of prisons is another problem. Even petty criminality is the result of deep, psychologically-driven social failure. The assumption that simply locking people up is an effective way of changing their social perceptions is not grounded in social reality. Violence breeding violence is a social reality. Recidivism should be recognised for what it is: systemic failure.
- Widespread public ignorance will continue as long as the media have no watchdog for recidivism, they have no watchdog regarding the total time prisoners spend doing rehabilitative activities measured against all their possible 40-hour working weeks spent in prison. There is no watchdog on the effectiveness of sentence length.
There is no watchdog on the match between heinous crime such as rape, murder or child abuse and other crimes which in this day and age would be considered lesser crimes.
In other words, important issues around incarceration go unreported and unconsidered by those who control the system.
It will take much more than one court case to change this high-cost, self- serving juggernaut, euphemistically called ’Justice’.
* J. Doreen Moulds is a person who has experienced the prison system through family connections: she is a member of Civil Liberties Australia.