Smart Justice Launch Speech by Hugh de Kretser

Smart Justice Launch – Hugh de Kretser

Date: 27 May 2010

Author: Hugh de Kretser, Executive Officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres and Smart Justice spokesman

Over the past 6 or so months we’ve seen a steady stream of criminal justice policies being announced and;
- implemented in the case of the Victorian Government, or
-promised to be implemented in the case of the Victorian Opposition.

The Opposition promised 1600 more police. The Government 1700.

The Government introduced powers allowing police to stop and search people in a designated area without a warrant or any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The Opposition said it would strengthen those powers.

The Opposition announced it would scrap suspended sentences. The Government abolished suspended sentences for serious offences and said it is considering abolishing all suspended sentences.

The Government introduced new powers allowing police to order people to “move on” from a location if they are suspected of breaching the peace. It quadrupled the penalty for being drunk in public place. On top of the existing offences of drunk in a public place, and drunk and disorderly, it introduced a new offence of just being “disorderly”.

The list goes on.

These announcements have common themes – new offences, harsher penalties, more police and more police powers.

At first glance, it may look like our politicians are working hard to something to reduce crime. But if you look at the research on what works to reduce crime, you soon realise that many of these policies are often more about sounding good than doing good.

These policies often don’t work, divert resources from programs that do work, and worse, can actually be counterproductive and increase crime.

Enter Smart Justice.

Smart Justice is about promoting criminal justice policies that work, that are evidence-based, value for money and that don’t violate Victorians human rights.

The project is led by the Federation of Community Legal Centres, and supported by a broad range of community and legal organisations with a vast array of experience working in the criminal justice system – with both offenders and victims.

I’ll quickly list the organisations:
Victorian Council of Social Service
Law Institute of Victoria
Victorian Bar
Youth Affairs Council of Victoria
Centre for Multicultural Youth
Jesuit Social Services
Catholic Social Services
Salvation Army
Youth Substance Abuse Service
Victorian Alcohol and Drugs Association
Centre for the Human Rights of Imprisoned People
Flat Out
Bridge of Hope Foundation
Liberty Victoria
Uniting Church Justice and International Mission
Anglicare Victoria and the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne Social Responsibilities Committee

The organisations in Smart Justice are passionate about reducing violence and crime. We want to prevent people from offending and we want to stop reoffending. That’s why we’ve joined together in Smart Justice.

The key activity of the project is producing 16 factsheets on topical criminal justice issues. from mandatory sentencing, to prisons and supporting victims of crime. It’s a fun task trying to synthesise 10,000 pages of research and publications into a 1,000 word factsheet but we hope we’ve done a decent job. There’s 5 completed so far and 11 to go.

The factsheets are housed on our Smart Justice website –
I encourage you to take a look at them and distribute them through your networks.

Smart Justice is about promoting the facts and informing and educating the debate. We want people to know about research and evidence:

I wanted to end by focussing on what Smart Justice says about what’s called “knife crime” in the media.

The term knife crime actually bundles together 2 separate offence categories – illegal knife carrying and knife violence - which have very different demographics and causes – requiring different policy responses.

Recent attention has focussed on our so called “growing knife culture” – creating the perception that violent crime, perpetrated by young people with knives, is on the rise.

There’s little hard evidence knife carrying is increasing, and police data, adjusted for population increases, shows robberies with knives are significantly down over the past decade and knife assaults are stable.

But leaving that aside, if we agree that any illegal knife carrying and knife violence is unacceptable, what do we do to stop it?

Research casts doubt on strategies that try and reduce knife supply.

Knives are not like guns. They’re readily available in any kitchen drawer and there are many lawful reasons for carrying them. Research shows that it’s mainly young boys who illegally carry knives – and the main reason they do it is fear for their own safety. So talking up our knife culture and front page photos of nasty looking blades captured in an amnesty will do little to reduce supply and may have the reverse effect of generating fear and actually increasing knife carrying.

The new stop and search powers are in a similar boat. Stop and search powers aren’t used randomly – they are used predominantly on young men - despite criminologists tell us that aggressive policing of young people may aggravate the problem, not mitigate it.

Data from the UK shows similar powers are also being used disproportionately and unfairly on people of African and Asian background - arrest rates after searches are similar across all racial groups. 

The Victorian Government admits the new powers breach Victorians’ human rights and. Julian Bondy, who literally wrote the book on knife carrying, concluded after his research that the stop and search powers were not warranted. Smart Justice solutions would focus on the demand side.

To its credit, the Victorian Government is taking some positive steps here. The education campaign, Knives Scar Lives, is generally a good development – particularly its use of role models to support the message. The announcement of 55 new youth workers to support at risk youth is sensible and welcome.

Unfortunately, the good policies tend to get drowned out by the bad. What we need to do is promote the good solutions and inform the public debate – so that the public has the information to properly judge policies themselves. 

This is what Smart Justice is about.

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