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As Victoria’s prisons overflow, it’s time to stop criminalising disadvantage

Reports have emerged today that police officers in Victoria are being forced to “babysit” prisoners who cannot fit into the state’s crowded prisons, leading to renewed criticism of the Denis Napthine-led…

Harsh measures of social control do nothing to solve the underlying problems. shutterstock

Reports have emerged today that police officers in Victoria are being forced to “babysit” prisoners who cannot fit into the state’s crowded prisons, leading to renewed criticism of the Denis Napthine-led government’s “tough on crime” approach.

But what has led to this rapid expansion of the Australian prison population, which has been increasing at three times the rate of the national population over a period of almost 20 years? It certainly hasn’t been down to an equivalent increase in criminal behaviour, at least as far as the available evidence on crime statistics is concerned.

Last week, British academic John Podmore argued that the Victorian government is failing to learn from the experience of prison expansion overseas. Podmore wrote that prison expansion was:

…the first refuge of intellectually bankrupt politicians, clamouring for votes by getting tough on crime.

He rightly pointed out that the tide is turning in England and the United States, where the costs have been weighed up against the limited benefits when inmates are finally released.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) quarterly figures show that Victoria has had an 8.2% increase in prison numbers in just 12 months, more than doubling the increase in NSW.

However, a change of policy direction in Victoria is not likely to occur, at least not before the next state election. The Napthine government has heavily favoured a “tough on crime” approach, with armed protective services officers on railway stations and plans to house the overflowing prison population in tents.

Rest assured that these tents will not be in your backyard, but behind razor ribbon wire fences, holding back prisoners, the majority of whom were convicted of non-violent offences. In the late 19th century, Victorian governments had resorted to prison hulks down at Williamstown, a formerly working class suburb that has been gentrified over recent decades. However, today, it is thought of as better to leave them “out of sight and out of mind”, often in rural and remote parts of Victoria.

While the pendulum on locking up minor offenders must swing back - even if it may take years, as has occurred in the US and the UK - a whole generation of young men (and increasingly women) will spend a considerable period of their adolescence and early adult years behind bars in the meantime.

One hint about why prison populations are expanding, particularly in Victoria in recent years, might be found in the the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling’s (NATSEM) latest report. It identified a statistically significant increase in those living under the poverty line - around 2.6 million Australians - a quarter of whom are dependent children. Poverty was extreme for families without any employed persons. It found that some localities had between 23.7% and 44.9% of children living in poverty.

These findings confirm a number of national research studies (which I managed) on social disadvantage, undertaken by Professor Tony Vinson from the University of Sydney from 1997 to 2007. He found high correlations between serious disadvantage - measured by more than 20 disadvantage factors - and conviction and imprisonment rates.

Australians recognise the complexity of addressing this connection in relation to our Indigenous communities. The same challenge needs to be recognised and addressed in seriously disadvantaged non-Indigenous communities, as clearly established in Vinson’s postcode mapping exercise.

The enthusiasm with which the Victorian government has embarked on its prison expansion policy - naturally to the delight of the private prison industry - is energy misdirected. The serious and critical challenge facing the government is to develop a more cohesive community by addressing the growing social divide within what is clearly an increasingly prosperous Australian society.

The early signs of social breakdown become evident in increased child neglect and abuse, early school leaving, domestic violence and concentrated long-term unemployment. Our priority should be to find innovative policy solutions to address these problems and reduce the generational cycle of poverty. And as the demand for increased housing increases that pressure, the solution could be found in more integrated social planning that can produce liveable and affordable communities.

There are no short-term solutions once disadvantage becomes entrenched within families and across localities. Criminalising disadvantage may appear effective in the short term, at least until the next Victorian election. But lasting solutions demand a more integrated approach that facilitates community growth and cohesion.

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Diana Taylor

    retired psychotherapist

    It seems to me that prisons have become a very inadequate de facto treatment for mental disability and mental illness. How much violent behaviour arises from our pitiful lack of psychiatric support?

  2. Paul Felix


    As with climate change my thoughts, are stop blaming the politicians and start blaming us.
    It is immensely fertile ground for politicians to blame and single out the poor, ill and disadvantaged in the UK, USA and here, that is why they do it.
    We can note that indigenous Australians are jailed when European Australians are not even charged for the same behavior.
    Cameron's return to the nasty party, under Aus. Lynton Crosby's direction has been responded to enthusiastically in the polls - the…

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  3. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Like and also associated with the drug "problem", there are almost no neat answers to this issue.

    All the statistics in the world aren't really proffering any competent answers.

    Education, rehabilitation, softer approach.

    Words, but not much more.

    The prison population has decreased in California mostly because the government wanted to decrease the prison population, not exactly because crime rates had decreased.

    What are the main reasons people commit crimes......economic, alcohol, plain ol naughty, family business ???

    Perhaps finding the answers to the WHY question might help the answer of HOW.

  4. Garry Baker


    Once again, an article generalising about the gaol population, as if all crime is tossed in the same basket. The fact is, violent people need to be locked up and taken out of the social loop for at least the term of their sentence (maybe more) whereas all too often a release translates to innocent people just keep getting hurt over and over again because some misfit operating within the social justice brigade had a brainy idea they might reform themselves better on the outside. Gamblers, these…

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    1. Peter Norden

      Adjunct Professor, School of Global, Social and Urban Studies at RMIT University

      In reply to Garry Baker

      The focus of my article is on the increased imprisonment of non-violent offenders. Are these included in what you refer to as "ferals"?

    2. Garry Baker


      In reply to Peter Norden

      Hello Peter, your focus may have been on the non-violents, but it really didn't read that way.. Rather, it was the generalising that I was picking on, yet had you placed an accent on the misfortunates and the down and outs (without a sign of violence to their crimes), then I too would support your views.

      Public safety is becoming far more topical these days, and it has plenty of support (given the random violence and its savageness). If say, a referendum was held tommorrow on restoring…

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    1. Ken Swanson


      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      No Gavin, this government understands community expectations about the need for the law to be enforced, the police to be supported in their role as enforcers of the law and that law breakers to be seen to be paying a price.

      When these values are not recognised you are on a slippery slope.

      The problem with so many in the social services sector is that they see perpetrators of crime as the victims instead of the other way around. Get out of your academic cocoon and go and meet a few victims of crime groups and direct your bleeding hearty towards them.

    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      But there is a case to made for those who make a stupid mistake and who otherwise might be locked up with recidivist criminals, setting on a downward spiral.

      Or we could put a fence around the feral suburbs and let them go it.
      Even charge an entry fee.........probably do big business.
      Sort of paintball but the real thing.

    3. Ken Swanson


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      No such thing as feral suburbs. There you go trying to hijack the discussion into a class envy contest. There are good and bad in all suburbs.

      Community must have respect for the rule of law and have confidence it will be enforced and that law breakers are seen to be punished in accordance with that law. That should be our starting point.

      Rehabilitation programs are fine after law breakers have received justice. It may means different prison types to keep the different crims separated. But at the end of the day, community expectations on law and order must be met otherwise anarchy and further disrespect for the law will grow and then the community will have an even bigger problem to deal with.

    4. Peter Norden

      Adjunct Professor, School of Global, Social and Urban Studies at RMIT University

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Mary Wooldridge is one in the Victorian Coalition Government who understands good social policy, but unfortunately, there is a dominant agenda present at the moment which is about getting re-elected, so she has serious limitations on proper implementation. Is there anything wrong with good social planning and crime prevention, or would you prefer to follow the American model?

      Mr Swanson, as one who has worked in the social services sector for more than 30 years, I know the victims of crime and have worked with too many of them in so many capacities .... perhaps more than geologists might have the opportunity of doing!

    5. John Q Citizen, Aussie


      In reply to Peter Norden

      The State Liberal Govt under E Bialeux (sic) went to the polls with a very strong law and order policy. The flow on has resulted in overflowing holding cells in suburban police stations. judges may well now considers the option of a CBO instead of a custodial sentence.
      in light of a lack of funding for the Parole Board and lack of staff, perhaps a lack of leadership we should all be very concerned that the incumbent State liberal Govt under 'The Flake" denis napthaline will ignore a great many other things, like digging holes, in order to be re-elected.
      Either way law and order two way street and frankly at the moment the State libs stink at it!

  5. Kenneth Mazzarol
    Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Auto Engineer and teacher

    I have always believed that those who refuse to live within our civilized boundary should be treated as Outsiders. There have been countless experiments done, legally and otherwise, on the human mind so that that knowledge may be used to confine the Outsiders within their own minds rather than in cement and iron at our expense. Then, when suitably subdued given back to their parents or carers to care for for for a period of time determined by the courts. The only obstacle seems to be from those who will howl in protest at forcing a drug onto someone without their consent, whether that 'someone' is a criminal or not..

    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Kenneth Mazzarol

      Interesting thoughts..............
      outsiders - a common theme in sci-fi(ish) movies.

      I suppose an issue is whether the committer (!) of a crime views his/her actions as criminal. It may be the justification is about revenge on society or persons,

      Could be that "rich" people deserve what they get. Peer group pressure. A desire to inflict pain for no good reason.

      A reason may be a good way to decide who get's sent to the naughty corner, or who gets a better chance at rehabilitation.

  6. Jeff Haddrick

    field manager

    "…the first refuge of intellectually bankrupt politicians, clamouring for votes by getting tough on crime."

    It could be added, that such politicians are empowered by an easily manipulated population and a media that sows disinformation.

    Given that our constitution doesn't directly grant much in the way of human rights, our freedoms rely on the good graces of our parliaments.
    In those circumstances, media that undermine the democratic process are a pernicious danger to our freedoms, to say nothing of degrading our ability to make decisions regarding the future of the planet.