The numbers of people in Victoria’s prisons are unsustainable and in part due to recent policy changes. AAP/Paul Miller

Building prisons is not making us safe – what can government do?

The Victorian Ombudsman, Deborah Glass, last week released a report into the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners in the state. What can we take from its findings?

The report’s starting point is the reality of imprisonment: it is temporary. In more than 99% of cases, offenders will return to the community. The challenge is to consider both the conditions in prison and the post-release conditions and trajectory of offenders.

The report’s findings are stark. Victoria is failing in relation to rehabilitation and post-release support. The consequence is that more people are imprisoned, more often. As the report lays out, we must understand the numbers. From there, we can begin to identify solutions.

The numbers

There is currently a surge in the numbers of people imprisoned in Victoria. The system is over capacity and failing to cope. The system is breaking under pressure, leading to riots and reports of increased violence and escapes.

The Ombudsman acknowledges, as does Corrections Minister Wade Noonan, that the numbers of people in Victoria’s prisons are unsustainable and in part due to policy changes that have reduced bail and parole options:

The evidence is plain that heightened pressure on the system has resulted in reduced access to programs and services – unsurprisingly, accompanied by a rise in re-offending.

The report also makes clear what has been published previously – that women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island prisoners are disproportionately impacted by the changing conditions and practices of imprisonment. Both groups, while relatively small as a proportion of the total population in Victorian prisons, have experienced exponential increases in the rate of imprisonment in recent years.

The solution(s)

Victoria needs tailored solutions, delivered as a whole-of-government strategy. Rehabilitation and reintegration looks different for men, for women, for Indigenous men and women, for those who have a cognitive disability, for young people.

Victoria needs a comprehensive, co-ordinated service, one that includes appropriate and adaptable models of support and care for key populations and individuals. “Whole-of-government” needs to translate into co-ordinated service delivery and sharing of information, without sacrificing accountability for outcomes.

There is significant research that demonstrates that support and assistance within prison works; that transitional support works; that the provision of long-term secure housing can be transformative; that case management that ensures consistency and continuity can work.

Researchers and policymakers can thus work together to recognise what isn’t working and build practice based on evidence, rather than assumption. This also means recreating the corrections culture to be accountable and transparent to enable what doesn’t work to be identified, and for success to be celebrated.

Investment is essential. While the system is costing A$1 billion, the funding for rehabilitation and post-release is less than one-third of this. Noonan recently said that the Andrews government

… had committed $300 million to manage the system better and to try reduce the rate of recidivism.

But as the Ombudsman’s report indicates, the current level of services and funding is inadequate. Victoria’s is not a situation unique in Australia. In South Australia, the investment in rehabilitation is reportedly 10% of its corrections budget.

The programs in place that are producing positive results, such as the Drug and Koori Courts, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre and the Criminal Justice Diversion Program, are both underfunded and finitely funded. Neither enables the full potential of these programs to be realised.

Victoria once led the way in innovative justice investment, but it now has a long way to go to reclaim this status. The Ombudsman’s report may cause despair. Yet it could also be seen as an opportunity for a new government setting out to implement a reform agenda that includes a reinvigoration of corrections-related policy.

The Ombudsman’s investigation and report is one step towards change. It has, to some extent, made Corrections Victoria accountable and challenged the recent tendency to suppress any and all information regarding the state of Victoria’s prison system.

What is not mentioned in this report – but which has proven critical over past decades – is the importance of public support. For too long, law-and-order politics has enabled a punitive response to criminal justice issues, including an assumption that supporting offenders within and beyond prison is tantamount to “going soft” on crime.

The Victorian people need to be on the side of reform. That begins with this report. It acknowledges that prison does not work, and that Victorians cannot afford the financial or social burden it places on the whole community.