Government moves to “contain” prison crisis, not solve it

December 03, 2013 |

The Government’s proposal to relieve prison over-crowding by housing low-risk prisoners in double-bunked shipping containers is a flawed and ad hoc response to the prison crisis, according to Smart Justice, a coalition of 29 organisations led by the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

“The Government’s failed law-and-order agenda has led directly to the point where solutions that seek to contain the consequences of crime rather than prevent it are being considered by a government that is ignoring the evidence of what works to boost community safety,” said Michelle McDonnell, spokesperson for Smart Justice, today.

The plan is being justified by a proposal to use the containers to house low-risk prisoners in circumstances where the containers cannot be locked due to safety concerns.

“Last week, we saw the exposure of an emergency funding allocation for 1200 new prison beds. This week we’ve moved onto shipping containers, which have followed double-bunking and stretcher beds in an attempt to deal with consequences of the government’s own making.

“The worst aspect of all this, is that it risks undermining community safety by further criminalising low-risk offenders, undermining their rehabilitation and promoting their reoffending upon release,” Ms McDonnell said.

A related plan to rotate work gangs in and out of prisons and remote and rural communities is also being justified on the basis of applying only to low-risk offenders.

“If these offenders are low risk and will work in the community under minimal supervision, we have to ask just what a work gang is adding to their rehabilitation. They could be engaged in community work under appropriate supervision outside the prison system at much lower cost, and with a much better prospect of safe re-integration into the community,” McDonnell said.

“The Corrections Minister Edward O’Donohue continues to use a relatively small number of extreme cases where the system has failed to justify excessively broad and damaging changes to the justice system.

“Everyone would acknowledge there have been failures, but the solutions the government is offering  have sweeping impacts on thousands of people beyond the much smaller number who do pose a significant risk to the community.

“We need to reserve prison for the high-risk cases. By seeking alternatives to prison for low-risk offenders, we can relieve prison overcrowding, save billions of dollars, and free up the system to deal with offenders who pose a real risk to the community,” McDonnell said.

She rejected Minister  O’Donohue’s claims on ABC radio that, under the government’s reforms, the Adult Parole Board, Community Correctional Services and supporting systems had now been adequately resourced to make safe decisions about the release and supervision of prisoners.

“Minister O’Donohue points to Victoria’s comparatively low incarceration rate, but he fails to mention the trajectory of growth in Victoria’s prison population, which has climbed by more than 48 per cent in the last decade. That rate of increase is set to dramatically worsen as the government fails to divert young people from the justice system, introduces further sentencing changes, and restricts parole in a false appeal to community expectations.

“The government should be seeking to inform the community about the evidence, not persuade them to accept an expensive and dangerous non-solution to the prison crisis,” McDonnell concluded.