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Investing to address causes of crime, not the consequences

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LAST week was a big week in Canberra. While much of the focus was on Julia Gillard's work for the Australian Workers' Union in the mid 1990s, the Parliament also considered laws for the national disability insurance scheme, education funding recommended by the Gonski review, pokie reform, the Murray-Darling basin plan, and recognising indigenous Australians in our Constitution.

But another important issue was considered by our politicians; one that may have far-reaching implications for our justice system and more broadly across the community, and one that received hardly any attention amidst the cacophony of the last sitting week of Parliament - the Senate began to consider a new policy of "justice reinvestment".

Young Black Man Outside Prison. Thinkstock

    Source: The Courier-Mail

It costs Queensland taxpayers about $66,000 a year to keep someone in jail and our custodial services now cost more than $555 million a year, with the Australian Institute of Criminology recognising most released prisoners return to custody at some point and many re-offend within a relatively short period of time.

Of course, the real price of prison is much higher.

Offending and imprisonment have enormous social costs for victims and offenders, their families and their communities.

But justice reinvestment can act as a circuit-breaker for this cycle of disadvantage and criminal behaviour. The money that would have been spent on housing medium- to low -security prisoners is instead invested in programs and services in communities which aim to address systemic disadvantage.

Research consistently shows that tackling disadvantage, increasing income equality and providing stable housing and employment opportunities can reduce crime.

The justice reinvestment model is based on evidence that a large number of young offenders often come from a relatively small number of disadvantaged communities. Data can be used to identify neighbourhoods and communities that could benefit the most from investment in early intervention and prevention programs.

When this issue was being discussed in the Senate, Liberal senator Gary Humphries rightly pointed out the issues raised in this discussion will impact on areas of states' responsibilities, especially around imprisonment and other corrective services. For that reason, it is vital Queensland's Department of Community Safety engage fully in this discussion to look at how justice reinvestment can have a positive community impact.

Next month, GenerationOne CEO and indigenous leader Warren Mundine will meet with Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie to talk about a plan that would give magistrates the option of sending an indigenous offender to work, linked with educational outcomes. If they failed to turn up, then they would be sent to jail. This practice of diverting people away from jail and addressing the causes of their offending is important and should be welcomed.

But we shouldn't wait until people are caught up in our criminal justice system before addressing the causes of criminal behaviour. Rather than punishing wrongdoers, we should work to create a community that provides support to vulnerable young people and prevents criminal offences occurring in the first place.

Let's address the causes of crime and disadvantage, rather than the consequences.

[Deakin University lecturer] James Farrell is a community lawyer who will next month start as director of the Queensland Association of Independent Legal Services.

This article first appeared in the Courier Mail as 'Cacophony buried debate about crime circuit-breaker' on 7 December 2012.  Read the original article here.

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