Open letter to Victoria’s incoming government

201412.05
0

Governments often talk about being “tough on crime”.

In the past 10 years we have seen sentencing options become more limited, with judicial discretion in sentencing being steadily eroded and the imprisonment of offenders markedly increased. It costs our society hundreds of millions of dollars to house offenders in prison, to build more gaols and to employ more prison staff. Yet are we any safer now? Many think not. The rate of reoffending following a term of imprisonment has not improved and changes to the parole system in Victoria means that prisoners are more frequently being released with either no supervision or with supervision of shorter duration. We are asking the new State Government to reconsider the approach to law and order taken by its predecessor, to provide effective treatment and rehabilitation services and to develop more creative and effective approaches to address the underlying causes of crime, as opposed to the “lock’em up” stance of the past few years.

Read this Open Letter to the Victorian Government prepared by Jesuit Social Services and contributed to by Tim Gattuso of our office in his capacity as a representative of the Law Institute of Victoria.

Dear Victoria’s incoming government,

We write to you on behalf of a range of stakeholders from across the Victorian legal and community sectors.

On Thursday 23 October, we came together to discuss criminal justice and reached a clear consensus – that the ‘tough on crime’ approach to criminal justice and community safety in recent years in Victoria has been seriously flawed. Despite an overall decline in the rates of most crimes during this period, an increasingly punitive approach has been pursued. We are concerned that governments have continued to promote the misconception that a ‘tough on crime’ approach will make our community safer, despite the strong and widely available evidence to the contrary. This presents serious challenges that we are calling on leaders to address.

Significant changes that we are concerned about include the reduction of flexibility and judicial discretion in sentencing through the introduction of mandatory minimum and baseline sentences, and the removal of suspended sentences and home detention. Also, Victoria’s bail and parole regimes are now less flexible, with reductions in the numbers of people in the community under supervision, plus increases in those on remand and people leaving prison on ‘straight release’.

As a consequence, over the past five years prison numbers have grown by 43 per cent, from 4,470 in September 2009 to 6,388 on 26 September 2014; and costs have almost doubled, from $493 million in 2009-10 to $942 million in 2014-15. Prison remains an appropriate sentence for some serious and violent offences, however, we are alarmed that hundreds, and potentially thousands of people who present a minimal risk to the community continue to be imprisoned.

While prison costs have increased significantly, there has been a failure to invest in building a justice system that is efficient, effective and fair. Restrictions to legal aid have resulted in more people appearing unrepresented, and have increased procedural delays and the prospect of unfair hearings in courts. Evidence-based diversion programs such as the Drug Court and Neighbourhood Justice Centre have not been expanded. Rehabilitative programs, prison health services, and support for people leaving prisons have not kept pace with growing prisoner numbers. Severe overcrowding in both prisons and police cells have resulted in abuses of prisoners’ human rights, including an increase in assaults and self harm, and failures to bring remanded prisoners to court, creating delays for victims and courts.

As a result we have seen the rate of reoffending by people released from prison on the rise, up from 31.3 per cent in 2003-04 to 39.5 per cent in 2013-14. We are concerned about community safety, given that increases in reoffending mean an increase in numbers of victims. More people being in prison is not making our community more safe.

It is very clear to us that Victoria’s current approach is costly and is not an effective way to build a safer community. In a constrained budget environment the enormous fiscal resources needed to fund expanding prisons means money must be stripped from expenditure that would address root causes of crime, such as education, community supports and health.

Given this, we strongly urge you to take leadership and urgently address four priority areas to improve community safety:

  1. Affirming the independence of the courts and strengthening the role of judicial discretion in determining appropriate sentences for each individual case.
  2. Strengthening diversion of, and problem-solving responses to, offenders to maximise opportunities for rehabilitation.
  3. Strengthening measures to uphold human rights – including ensuring people accused of offences have appropriate representation, safeguarding the presumption of innocence, and ensuring people’s safety and access to health care in prisons.
  4. Committing to reduce the rate of reoffending by ex-prisoners by 15 per cent over the next five years.

All of us want to see a Victorian criminal justice system that is fair and effective, and a community that is safe and strong. The current approach to justice is achieving the opposite of what was promised at great financial and social cost; with a greater proportion of prisoners returning to the community unsupervised, without having completed rehabilitation programs, and reoffending. We must now work for reform.

We look forward to working with you towards this over the term of the next parliament.

Yours sincerely,

Julie Edwards, CEO, Jesuit Social Services

Denis Fitzgerald, Executive Director, Catholic Social Services Victoria

Emma King, CEO, Victorian Council of Social Service

Georgie Ferrari, CEO, Youth Affairs Council of Victoria

Jenny Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Council to Homeless Persons

Liana Buchanan, EO, Federation of Community Legal Centres on behalf of the Smart Justice Project

Margot Powell, Coordinator Inside Access, Mental Health Legal Centre

Peter Morrissey SC, Chair, Criminal Bar Association

Rob Melasecca, Barrister and Solicitor

Rob Stary, Principal, Rob Stary Lawyers

Tiffany Overall, Coordinator, Smart Justice for Young People

Tim Gattuso, Criminal Law Section, Law Institute of Victoria

Wayne Muir, CEO, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service

Jesuit Social Services is a not-for-profit organisation which works to build a just society by advocating for social change and promoting the health and wellbeing of disadvantaged young people, families and communities.

Media Enquiries: Kathryn Kernohan 0409 901 248, kathryn.kernohan@jss.org.au

Victoria’s tough on crime policy ‘seriously flawed’ article by  Patricia Karvelas in the Australian

 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/state-politics/victorias-tough-on-crime-policy-seriously-flawed/story-fnqetyrp-1227138204066?nk=443d437de7eeccffae817cee5e9d6c24