Stalled prison project cause to rethink flawed policy

The stalled Ararat prison expansion is cause to rethink the Victorian Government’s flawed harsher sentencing policies which are accelerating the rapid, unsustainable growth in Victoria’s prison population, according to Smart Justice, a coalition of 24 legal and community organisations led by the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

“To relieve the dangerous overcrowding of our prisons, the Ararat prison project must be completed, but Victoria is on the wrong track with the projected expansion of prisons and we need to get off,” said Smart Justice spokesperson, Michelle McDonnell, today.

“Building more prisons will not make Victorians any safer. Prisons are expensive, have profound negative social impacts, and – as the Ararat prison project demonstrates – are fraught with financial risks that are borne by workers, families and taxpayers, not just the construction partners,” McDonnell said.

“The inevitable consequence of the Government’s justice policies – including mandatory sentencing proposals, baseline sentences and the abolition of suspended sentences and home detention – is that we can expect more Ararats as more people are sent to prison under flawed policies which ignore what works in preventing crime and improving community safety,” McDonnell said.

Victoria’s prison population grew 40% in the decade to mid-2011 and is projected to accelerate under the Government’s policies. Victorian prison spending has more than tripled since 2001–02.

“The Government’s harsher sentencing policies are driven by the myth that court sentencing is out of touch with community expectations. When the community is properly informed about the circumstances surrounding crimes, they are more likely to agree with sentencing instead of calling for ever-harsher sentences that fuel prison population growth.

A Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Study showed that when the public has the same information about a crime as a judge, on average they would give a similar or lesser sentence. A recent UK study by Oxford University and the Institute of Crime Policy Research has also shown that there is significant public support for mitigating circumstances informing sentencing – including the option of prison alternatives such as community orders.

“These rigorous scientific studies stand in contrast to the populist media survey on sentencing the Victorian Government carried out last year, meeting with strong critical reaction from prominent voices in our judiciary,” McDonnell said.

A recent US study by the Pew Center on the States has also highlighted the “high cost and low return of longer prison terms”, finding that US authorities are seeking to “generate greater public safety with fewer taxpayer dollars” and that “for a substantial number of offenders, there is little or no evidence that keeping them locked up longer prevents additional crime”.

The new report by the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council has also cast doubt on the effectiveness of prison as a crime control mechanism, highlighting that the “criminogenic” impact of prison, which increases the likelihood of reoffending on release, can offset benefits obtained through preventing a person from committing crimes while in prison. The report concludes that “blanket increases in the rate or lengths of imprisonment are unlikely to be the most efficient use of resources in order to achieve a reduction in the crime rate.”

“If we’re talking community expectations, the community should certainly expect that policies work, that they are cost-effective, and that they represent the best option for tackling the issue at hand.

“Yet on each of these criteria, prison expansion fails as a socially and economically viable solution. We need to cut crime. We need to prevent murders, rapes and other crimes. Stronger investment in policies and programs that address the causes of crime is more sustainable and will have better outcomes for community safety,” McDonnell said.

Smart Justice factsheets “More prisons are not the answer to reducing crime” and “Justice reinvestment: investing in communities not prisons” are available at http://www.smartjustice.org.au/cb_pages/factsheets.php.

Download the media release (PDF)

 

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