The Australian Medical Association’s Report Card on Indigenous Health correctly links particular health issues - such as mental health, alcohol and drug use and cognitive disabilities - with the high Indigenous incarceration rate.
However, in recommending Australian governments adopt a justice reinvestment approach, the AMA is promoting an approach that simply recycles familiar old ‘preventive’ and community-based programs in a new wrapping.
Justice reinvestment, which began in the US, redirects money spent on prisons to programs that address the underlying causes of offending in neighbourhoods where a large percentage of the population is in jail. The concept has a growing group of supporters in Australia.
In their desire to find a ‘panacea’ to address high levels of Indigenous incarceration, supporters of justice reinvestment, such as Smart Justice have failed to adequately explain how it could work in Australia, which has a very different criminal justice system to the US.
Unlike the US, responsibility for prisons in Australia rests with state and territory governments. As a result, a key component of the approach - to devolve responsibility to state and local authorities - cannot occur in Australia.
Part of the rationale for justice reinvestment in the US is savings that accrue by keeping people out of prison. But in the US, three quarters of all offenders end up receiving a custodial sentence, whereas in Australia only one fifth of offenders do. This means the potential savings are much higher in the US than in Australia, which already has a number of community correction programs.
Even in the US states where it has been applied, it is not clear there has been savings. Prisons may have closed but correctional service budgets have continued to grow. In the UK, the introduction of justice reinvestment strategies was accompanied by a parallel rise in the prison population.
In outlining their case, the AMA is selective in their use of statistics. The AMA states that courts are more likely to impose harsher sentences on Indigenous offenders than non-Indigenous offenders by referring to the fact that Indigenous people are more likely to be incarcerated for traffic offences than non-Indigenous offenders.
However, a comparison of Indigenous and non-Indigenous crime statistics shows that, overall, non-Indigenous offenders are more likely to receive longer sentences than Indigenous offenders, particularly for homicide and drug offences.
Locking people up because they cannot afford to pay a traffic fine is wrong. As is incarcerating people with mental health conditions or Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder when they commit minor offences. But addressing these problems does not require adopting justice reinvestment strategies.
Formal assessments of people’s cognitive and intellectual abilities prior to sentencing, and more options for people with substance use disorders to receive rehabilitation services instead of prison sentences, could occur without the use of justice reinvestment
A key factor behind high rates of alcohol and drug use and other health problems among the Indigenous population is the high rate of unemployment - 35% of Indigenous people of working age are not employed or looking for work.
When Indigenous people have a job or own their business, they are less likely to suffer from mental health issues or alcohol and substance abuse. Unemployment is also a greater risk factor for offending than being Indigenous. Unemployed Indigenous people are 20 times more likely to go to jail than Indigenous people who are employed.
Rather than arguing for justice reinvestment, the AMA should be promoting the adoption of the Empowered Communities recommendations which aim to empower Indigenous people through regional based social and economic development initiatives.
Improving the opportunities for employment in regional and remote Indigenous communities is likely to have a more transformative impact on Indigenous people than fiddling with the criminal justice system ever could.
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