GREENS MOTION: Justice Reform Initiative

Today Mark moved a motion on behalf of the Greens in support of the Justice Reform Initiative, a campaign to reform the criminal justice system to minimise repeat offending, better look after the victims of crime and ultimately make our communities safer and stronger. 


That this council—

1. Notes—

(a) the launch this month of a new law reform campaign known as the Justice Reform Initiative;

(b) that more than 100 eminent Australians, across all sectors of society and across political party lines, have joined their voice to the cause of ending Australia's dangerously high reliance on gaols and urging governments to focus instead on more effective alternatives to incarceration;

(c) that Australia's prison population has grown to more than 43,000—up from under 30,000 only eight years ago—and that this comes with a $3.6 billion price tag to Australian taxpayers every year;

(d) that, despite clear evidence pointing to the harm done to the individual and the community by incarceration, we still put people in gaol for relatively trivial offences; and

2. Calls on all Members of Parliament to read the Justice Reform Initiative's briefing note entitled 'The state of the incarceration nation—a briefing to Australia's members of parliament' and to keep an open mind to the evidence with a view to reforming the criminal justice system to minimise repeat offending, better look after the victims of crime and ultimately make our communities safer and stronger.

I have introduced this motion today to support the work of the Justice Reform Initiative. The Justice Reform Initiative is an alliance of people from across the political spectrum who share a longstanding professional experience or knowledge of the justice system and believe that there is an urgent need to reduce the number of people in Australian gaols. The objective of the project is to present a strong, evidence-based case for law reform to state and federal governments. That evidence shows that current approaches and the current trajectory are leaving a very real toll on people and communities.

The Justice Reform Initiative is supported by more than 100 of our most eminent Australians, including two former governors-general, former members of parliament from all sides of politics, academics, respected Aboriginal leaders and senior former judges, including High Court justices. I am not going to read a list of 100 names, but just to give the council a flavour of the calibre of the people who are behind this campaign, I will point out that the two co-patrons in chief are the Hon. Sir William Deane, former High Court Justice and former Governor-General of Australia, and the Hon. Dame Quentin Bryce, former Governor-General of Australia.

The initiative has a number of national patrons, including the Hon. Elizabeth Evatt, former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia; the Hon. Mary Gaudron, former Justice of the High Court; the Hon. Michael Kirby, again of the High Court; Dr Jackie Huggins, the former Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia; Professor Patrick McGorry; Arthur Moses; and Mick Palmer. These are all names that are household names of eminent Australians.

The initiative further has a list of South Australian patrons. I think it is important, in the South Australian parliament, to just quickly read this list to you, in alphabetical order: the Hon. Rev. Dr Lynn Arnold, former Premier of South Australia; Dr Andrew Cannon, former Deputy Chief Magistrate; the Hon. Robert Hill, former federal minister and former Australian Permanent Representative to the United Nations; the Hon. Dr Robyn Layton, former Supreme Court Judge; Professor Rick Sarre, former head of the School of Law at the University of South Australia; and the Hon. Chris Sumner, South Australia's longest serving Attorney-General.

I had not seen him for many, many years, and he popped into the Legislative Council today, just to check that we were still conducting ourselves appropriately. I took the opportunity to say to him that I would be mentioning his name in the course of a speech this afternoon, and he reaffirmed how important this campaign is. The final patron—and I will be criticised if I leave it off—is Penny Wright, former Senator and current SA Guardian for Children and Young People. Each state has 10 or a dozen patrons, and they are all people of similar calibre.

The catchcry of the Justice Reform Initiative is 'Gaoling is failing'. Past governments of both of both political persuasions have been responsible for more than doubling the Australian gaol population over recent decades. The Australian imprisonment rate per 100,000 of adult population more than tripled, from 66 in 1985 to 223 in 2019.

What these statistics tell us is that it is now time to critically examine whether there is a better way. This examination is not something that is unique to Australia. Another country that is an outlier, like Australia, in terms of incarceration rates is the US. In many parts of the United States, Democrats and Republicans are learning to work together to support alternatives to incarceration. I have spoken in this place before about the Justice Reinvestment strategy that saw legislators in states like Texas come to the conclusion that building more and bigger gaols was not the answer and was also really expensive.

In Australia, even the Institute of Public Affairs is now coming around to the same conclusion, not because they are a bastion of lefty progressives but because they know how to count money. They are not an organisation that I quote often, but the IPA found in its 2017 justice project that Australia has the fifth most expensive prisons in the OECD and the seventh fastest prison spending growth in the OECD.

My motion urges all Members of Parliament to read the Justice Reform Initiative's briefing note to Australian MPs entitled, 'The state of the incarceration nation'. That report provides clear evidence that gaoling is failing. It is failing as a deterrent, it is failing victims of crime, it is failing the most disadvantaged, it is failing Indigenous Australians, it is failing people with mental illness or cognitive disability, it is failing women, it is failing young Australians, it is failing in terms of rehabilitation and it is failing Australian taxpayers. I would like to explore each of these points very briefly.

Gaoling is failing as a deterrent. The evidence is that rates of reoffending are actually increasing. Only one-quarter of inmates are entering adult prison for the first time and more than half return within two years. Overcrowding is making it difficult to provide proper training and support programs to help people leaving gaol from reoffending and can actually make them more likely to commit further crimes. The Justice Reform Initiative's briefing paper provides all the statistics members need to show how the revolving door of prison is working in practice.

Gaoling is also failing the victims of crime. This might seem counterintuitive but victims of crime often say that they are not helped by the tough on crime rhetoric. They say, to the contrary, that they are helped when they witness the introduction of programs that address the causes of offending. There is strong support amongst victims for innovative strategies of restorative justice that help prevent reoffending.

Gaoling is failing the most disadvantaged. The number of people in prison has increased by nearly 50 per cent since the year 2000. Statistics show quite clearly that people from disadvantaged or marginalised groups are far more likely to come into contact with police. Intergenerational poverty and lack of education and opportunity cause more and more young people from these communities to turn to crime. Incarceration at such an early age is habit forming.

Gaoling is failing Indigenous Australians. In 2018, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accounted for 3 per cent of the total population but 28 per cent of the adult prison population. An even grimmer statistic is that only 5 per cent of young people aged between 10 and 17 are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but they represent 59 per cent of young people in detention.

It is nearly 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Although governments accepted almost all of the commission's recommendations, many of them, such as imprisonment being a last resort, have not been implemented. Governments have also failed to adequately address the underlying systemic issues, which the royal commission identified as the cause of the disproportionate rate of Indigenous incarceration.

Gaoling is failing people with mental illness or cognitive disability. The proportion of offenders with a history of mental illness is over 50 per cent and that figure is even higher for young people in custody. Almost 90 per cent of young people in custody have a past or present psychological disorder.

The estimates of prisoners with intellectual disability or borderline intellectual disability are as high as 20 per cent. All these people have limited access to appropriate mental health or other critical support while they are in prison and most will be released back into the community in a relatively short period of time. In New South Wales, for example, over 20,000 people are released from prison every year.

Gaoling is failing women. The fastest growing cohort of Australia's prison population is women and a disproportionate number of those women are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Most have committed non-violent offences and many are themselves victims of horrific domestic abuse. One immediate consequence of incarcerating these women is that they are separated from their children, who are thereby made victims of the same systemic failure.

Gaoling is failing our young Australians. Sadly, most of the young people in Australia's juvenile justice system come from backgrounds where they have already often suffered from severe neglect or abuse and/or had been placed in out-of-home care. This was clearly demonstrated by the royal commission into the Don Dale centre in the Northern Territory. The children in these centres, who can be as young as 10, have often had the hardest of young lives and they need family and community support, education and life opportunities, rather than being locked up.

Gaoling is also failing in terms of rehabilitation. It is in the interests of everybody in the community that repeat offending be radically reduced by transformational community programs that improve pathways for people as they leave prison, including through access to education, training, genuine work opportunities and by addressing homelessness.

Sadly, under current arrangements, in every part of Australia these critical community and support programs are not operating effectively, if at all. One corrective services commissioner has confirmed that 70 per cent of the prison population is functionally illiterate. Short-term prisoners, including those on remand, are mostly not eligible for such programs in any event.

Finally, gaoling is failing Australian taxpayers. Australia now imprisons more people than at any time since 1900 in both total numbers and per capita, the cost exceeding $3.6 billion annually or $110,000 per prisoner per year. Our incarceration rate is above all Western European countries and Canada, among many other countries. Sadly, instead of reducing crime it has led only to higher rates of reoffending.

Successful multipartisan reform initiatives internationally show us that there is another way, and it is time for governments to listen and accept the evidence for reform. It is time to admit that whichever way we look at it, gaoling is failing. Of course, that is not to say we will never need gaols, or to deny that some crimes are so abhorrent that society will demand incarceration—often for a very long time.

I would be happy to see Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch mosque mass murderer, remain in gaol until he dies. That was his sentence, life without parole; the only person to have received that sentence in New Zealand. I think that reflects community standards.

However, the explosion of prisoner numbers in Australia has not been caused by a spike in mass murderers, or even violent crimes in general: it is overwhelmingly people for whom other options should be available, and would be available if we took seriously what these 100 eminent Australians are saying to us.

The last thing I want to say is that the timing of this motion, on the same day we are debating yet another two bills designed to keep more people incarcerated for longer, shows that we do have a long way to go. The law and order auction, the contest to see who can be the toughest on crime, has got us precisely to where we are today. Now is the time to hit the reset button.

I urge Liberal and Labor members, in particular, to listen to the elder statespersons in their parties and heed the lessons from their experience. I commend the motion to the house.