Unlocking Community: Community-led Initiatives to Reduce Indigenous Over-Imprisonment

In 2014 the HRLC’s Ben Schokman was awarded a nine-month Myer Innovation Fellowship to research and design new and innovative approaches to address the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. The fellowship involved examining “justice reinvestment” initiatives operating overseas and considering their potential application in the Australian context.

This page summarises the findings and insights identified during the fellowship. The findings are based on successful initiatives that targeted the health and well-being outcomes that contribute to the causes of crime and, as a consequence, reduced crime and imprisonment rates.

While there is no one ‘model’ for successfully reducing crime and imprisonment rates and improving health and well-being outcomes, there were a number of core elements and key themes that emerged that are identified below. 

Core Elements

1. Community initiated and community led

The strongest element of success was that approaches designed to tackle the factors that contribute to crime were initiated and led by affected communities themselves. The people who are most affected are likely to have the best ideas of what issues exist, why they exist, and what change is needed.

Community-led initiatives can take many forms, ranging from communities undertaking their own consultation and participation processes through to large-scale social movements.

Community empowerment and agency is the key to developing long term, effective solutions. Genuine ownership by community members ensures that skills, resources and energy will be invested in a way that it is sustainable, resilient and more effective.

2. Holistic, integrated approaches

When affected communities are directly involved the design and implementation of measures to prevent crime, it is much more likely that such initiatives will be more tailored to the specific needs and aspirations of that particular community. Many services provided to communities fail to deal adequately with the ‘intersectionality’ of issues faced by people who have multiple and complex needs – largely due to the siloed and fragmented nature of service delivery that is provided by government agencies. Approaches identified by directly affected communities themselves result in ‘bottom up’ approaches that are more holistic and integrated in their nature, rather than ‘top down’ approaches that fail to meet the specific needs of the community.

3. Economic sustainability

The final successful element was that communities that were able to diversify their funding base beyond a reliance on government funding were much more likely to be successful. Funding was often the last question considered by communities after they had identified local priorities and developed ideas about how these priorities should be addressed. Government funding often means that people not from the community and not familiar with the issues in the community are making decisions about what funding is provided for what services.

Key Themes

Expanding on these three core elements, there were 10 key themes that were common to stories of success.

1. A burning imperative: There was often some sort of crisis or emergency that created the imperative for the community to come together to determine collectively that things need to change in their community.

2. Place-based and small scale: Localised, smaller-scale projects were far more likely to be successful than larger scale national, state or regional programs. Often, initiatives involved specific groups within a broader community rather than ‘whole of community’ approaches.

3. Led by directly affected people: Processes and solutions must be driven by directly affected people. Those who have first-hand lived experience of the issues are most likely to have the best ideas about what the possible solutions are.

4. Create hope and aspiration: As a result of creating an imperative for change, communities were able to develop a strong sense of hope and aspiration about the future and a deep desire to bring about change.

5. Independence from government: There were strong correlations between success in achieving outcomes and independence from government involvement or interference. This was particularly the case given that many communities found themselves in positions of disadvantage and marginalisation as a consequence of government approaches and neglect.

6. Diversification of resources: Communities that were able to diversify their funding base were much more likely to be successful. This also led to more sustainable and longer term funding, which is essential to overcoming the short-term nature of expectations of results that comes with short-term funding.

7. Community building: Successful initiatives focused on a strengths based approach that recognised community assets, and not on what the problems with a community were. Many initiatives incorporated a strong focus on “building” and “learning”, and not necessarily on providing formal “education”. This involves building the capacity of people within the community and the development of “intrapreneurs” who stay connected with their community rather than leaving to seek opportunities elsewhere.

8. Culture and narrative: Incorporating an understanding of historical context and the dominant narrative was essential to addressing existing power imbalances. In many cases, communities were able to incorporate a “truth and reconciliation” component and restorative practices into their approaches, especially through community centres or cultural or healing centres.

9. Integrating external expertise: One significant common factor was that communities were able to draw on external expertise and insights to inform their own processes and approaches. This often involved informal cross-community exchanges or sharing of information, as well as communities that on their own terms engaged external experts as enablers and facilitators. 

10. Time: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, making inroads into deep seated and often complex disadvantage requires long term change and can’t be achieved in a holistic way through short term interventions.


For further information:
Ben Schokman ben.schokman@hrlc.org.au