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Senator Penny Wright on why justice reinvestment works

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 14 Aug 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (18:54): I rise to speak tonight on an issue very close to my heart-justice reinvestment. It is something I have spoken about quite a few times during my four years in the Senate. I hope by now many people are familiar with the concept and the hope it offers to reduce our ever-increasing imprisonment rates in Australia, especially when it comes to locking up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

At its heart, justice reinvestment is about reducing crime. It embodies the old common-sense idea that prevention is better than cure, but it comes with a fresh, modern face based on rigorous data and evaluation. Justice reinvestment is about redirecting resources away from locking up more and more people into programs and strategies that are proven to prevent crime from occurring in the first place. It is designed to achieve three good outcomes in one: firstly, reducing excessive and costly imprisonment; secondly, improving public safety by reducing crime; and, thirdly, making communities stronger.

The most interesting thing of all is that justice reinvestment has been proven to work. It originated in the United States and there are now 22 states that have taken up justice reinvestment, with the most celebrated being Texas-a state that was hardly known for being soft on crime. Texas was one of the early adopters of justice reinvestment and it was reacting to its spiralling prisons budget, which threatened to bankrupt the state and which meant that there was not going to be sufficient money for other public services like schools and health and so it decided to swap 'tough on crime' for 'smart on crime'.

The other really exciting thing about justice reinvestment and what really attracted my attention about five years ago was seeing Republicans and Democrats standing together in the United States to embrace a fresh, new approach to tackling crime. We know that law and order and crime are not usually characterised by bipartisanship in that they are exploited to drive fear and cause people to vote on the basis of emotions like fear and division. So it is from this standpoint and with this history that I am very pleased tonight to present to the Senate a recent ground-breaking report prepared by Amnesty International Australia called A Brighter Tomorrow: keeping Indigenous kids in the community and out of detention in Australia.

This document, which was publicly released last month, calls for leaders in all walks of life to take up the conversation on justice reinvestment to tackle the horrifying statistics that we see in relation to the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. The numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth who are locked up in Australia are awful. In 2013 and 2014 a young Indigenous person was 26 times more likely to be in detention than a non-Indigenous young person across Australia, and that is an average. In some states it is far worse. We have heard these figures time and time again but they insist on getting worse.

Indigenous young people make up about five per cent of the Australian youth population, but more than half of those in detention, 59 per cent, are Indigenous young people. What a terribly sad situation this is. We face losing a whole generation of the young people who are the future of Aboriginal Australia. This Amnesty report, A Brighter Tomorrow, gives us compelling evidence to show how justice reinvestment can prevent and reduce crime. Clearly, that is good for all of us. It also outlines 16 policies that will substantially reduce the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people that we lock up across Australia every year. These recommendations are good but they will only be effective if they are implemented at federal, state and local levels-we need to work together.

I must take this opportunity to acknowledge the unparalleled contribution Amnesty International makes to the human rights debate in Australia and to the presentation of evidence based, world-class policy recommendations. As a member of the Amnesty International Parliamentary Friendship Group, I am proud to have played a small part in their advocacy effort on this and other issues.

The most important recommendation in the Brighter Tomorrow report is to adopt justice reinvestment strategies to fight the social and economic factors which underpin the imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Indigenous leaders and Aboriginal controlled community organisations have consistently highlighted the need for locally designed programs to allow for prevention, intervention early, and diversion away from the prison system into other more effective and fruitful operations. Locally designed is crucial. Programs need to be trusted and relevant to the communities they seek to assist. People are the experts about their own lives and sadly Australian history is littered with examples of ill-conceived programs that have been foisted on communities and failed. We know what needs to be done, and world-class models exist for how to go about developing community-led strategies to address the root causes of crime.

Being a federal senator, one of my favourite recommendations in the report highlights a clear and practical role for the Commonwealth government to assist state and territory governments to embrace this novel way of approaching crime and punishment. As a number of state governments begin to experiment with justice reinvestment strategies, including New South Wales and my state of South Australia, the Commonwealth is uniquely placed to play a coordinating role, a role the Australian Greens have been calling for since before the last federal election. Recommendation 10 of the report calls for the Commonwealth to take a leadership role through COAG to identify the data which is crucial to the rigorous methodology used by justice reinvestment strategies. This can be achieved through the tasking of a technical body to assist states and territories and coordinate a national approach to data collection. This echoes a key recommendation arising from the 2013 Senate inquiry into the value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia, which was initiated by the Australian Greens and which I had the privilege of chairing.

The success of justice reinvestment in the US is partly attributable to the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan, voluntary, expert body resourced to share knowledge, support and data with its constituent members. I would love to see a similar independent, expert, advisory body in Australia.

There are also a number of recommendations made within the A brighter tomorrow report that directly relate to the obligations Australia has voluntarily assumed as a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For example, currently the criminal age of responsibility across Australia is 10 years old, despite the fact that the internationally lowest acceptable minimum age is 12. Another example of breach of Convention on the Rights of the Child is the new Queensland government law that the court must disregard the principle that detention is a last resort. These two laws contribute to a culture in Queensland of locking up people, which has been shown to devastate our young people, particularly our young Indigenous people, and to exacerbate intergenerational crime rather than address the causes of criminal behaviour so that it will not continue to happen. The Brighter tomorrow report also documents the likely impact of the recent funding uncertainty and cuts to Indigenous legal services on the rates of Indigenous youth incarceration. Amnesty International recommends that sustainable, long-term funding for specialist legal services is critical if we want to prevent crime, support communities and victims, and help our young people turn their lives around before experiencing the devastating impacts of imprisonment. Why wouldn't we want to do that?

The report also recommends the adoption of justice targets in the Closing the Gap strategy. Justice targets have also been supported by the Law Council of Australia, the Social Justice Commissioner and many other legal experts. The Australian Greens have also consistently called for COAG to adopt such targets. Another huge issue considered in the Brighter tomorrow report is the troubling phenomenon of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, known as FASD. FASD can give rise to physical, cognitive, intellectual, behavioural and social disabilities that can work to increase the chance of contact with the criminal justice system. Amnesty International recommends, as well as existing strategies to address FASD, it should be included as a disability under the National Disability Insurance Scheme and on the Department of Social Services list of recognised disabilities.

As you can see from this brief snapshot of this very thorough report, the recommendations made within the Brighter tomorrow report provide a best practice framework to help Australia reduce the horrifying number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in prison. I urge the government to use this report as an opportunity to start a new chapter of policy development in response to Indigenous incarceration. It is with pleasure that I seek leave to table A brighter tomorrow: Keeping Indigenous kids in the community and out of detention in Australia report for the Senate.


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