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

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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