Need to address Victoria’s soaring imprisonment rates, HRLC tells Victorian Ombudsman

The Victorian Government should implement justice policies aimed at reducing Victoria’s soaring imprisonment rates, the Human Rights Law Centre has today recommended in a submission to the Victorian Ombudsman's Discussion Paper on prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration.

The submission calls on the new Victorian Government to seize the opportunity to change course and introduce policies that work to cut crime, cut spending and cut imprisonment rates.

The HRLC’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said that Victoria has seen unprecedented growth in prisoner numbers over the past few years without a corresponding increase in community safety.

“Evidence shows that locking more and more people up and creating harsher sentencing and parole laws hasn’t worked. There are smarter ways to tackle crime and keep the community safe, and it’s time to embrace them,” said Ms Barson.

The former Government’s law and order agenda cost the community greatly. According to current projections, in 2014–15 Victoria will spend more than $940million on prison operations alone, an increase of 47% over two years. Moreover, between 2009 -2015, the prison population is forecast to have grown by approximately 65%. Rather than reducing crime, these swelling prison numbers have actually been accompanied by rises in the rate of reoffending.

“Prisons should not just be used to warehouse prisoners until their release date. There must be a genuine and primary focus on prisoner rehabilitation. In Victoria, prisoner rehabilitation is being compromised by unsustainable growth in prisoner numbers and deteriorating prison conditions,” said Ms Barson.

Ms Barson said that current policies are also disproportionately impacting women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Victoria imprisons Indigenous people at 11 times the rate of non-Indigenous people. It’s important that the Victorian Government work in partnership with Indigenous communities to reduce these unacceptably high rates of over-representation. In particular, the Victorian Government should consider expanding the Koori Court initiative and increasing community-based sentencing options,” said Ms Barson.

Ms Barson said that if Victoria wants to halt increasing imprisonment rates, it needs to embrace a justice reinvestment approach. This involves reinvesting money from prisons into community based services aimed at strengthening communities and addressing the underlying causes of offending.

“The Victorian Government should reconsider the laws that have seen Victorians spend millions on dead-end solutions. Investment in early intervention, prevention and rehabilitation is what will see both crime and prison rates reduced,” said Ms Barson.

A copy of the submission is available here.

Post script: A subsequent media statement from the Victorian Ombudsman can be found here.