Reoffending has hit a record high of 44.1 per cent in Victoria, says a report by the Victorian Ombudsman. Recidivism, which is defined as the rate of return of released prisoners who end up back inside within two years, is even worse in the 18 to 25 age group, where more than half of young prisoners are banged up again within 24 months.
The numbers are alarming and indicate a cycle of offending that came become entrenched and last a lifetime.
The Victorian Ombudsman’s report was sparked by spiralling prisoner numbers and the galloping costs of building and running prisons to the taxpayer, as well as by historically high levels of reoffending.
As well, Victoria’s correctional system is the subject of more complaints to the Ombudsman than any other government agency.
Government News spoke to Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass about the reasons for these appalling statistics and some suggestions on how to tackle them.
Ms Glass said that tougher sentencing, bail and parole conditions in the state have led to overcrowded prisons – Victoria’s prison population hit its highest ever of 6,506 in January this year – and translated into increasingly deteriorating conditions inside prisons.
One result of this overcrowding is reduced access to rehabilitation programs – whether it is education and training or drug and alcohol counselling.
“There are increasing numbers of prisoners released straight into the community from a maximum security facility without parole,” said Ms Glass. “They’re people living in a maximum security facility going straight into the community without any of the mentoring and supervision [e.g. drug and alcohol programs, training] that comes with parole.
“There are huge waiting lists for these programs and some prisoners are released before they can access them. Some prisoners are choosing not to do them and saying: ‘we would rather do our sentences’.”
Ms Glass says these are often prisoners who have been inside for many years, who may have lost touch with their families and have difficulty performing pretty basic functions, such as paying bills, finding work or using technology.
Another problem is the manifestly inadequate resources available in the state.
For example, there is only one dedicated youth unit and this houses only 35 of the state’s 751 young offenders in adult prisons. The unit, which is at Port Phillip prison, is for first-time male offenders only. No similar unit exists for female prisoners.
The unit provides a range of tailored programs which other young prisoners do not have access to and includes education, personal development, employment and sport. It also has other features, such as family visits through Skype, a t-shirt printing business managed by the unit’s prisoners and links to pre-release programs with employment and post-release support.
The situation is no better for adult prisoners in the state.
There is also only one transitional unit for adult prisoners in Victoria, the Judy Lazarus Transition Centre. This is limited to 25 places and is for men only. This is despite evidence showing how effective such support is at stopping reoffending. Around 10 per cent of prisoners discharged from this facility return to prison within two years, compared with 44 per cent of all prisoners in the rest of the state.
Certain groups in prison are growing faster than others. The number of female prisoners, while always much smaller than men, are growing fastest.
Ms Glass said “relatively few” women were violent offenders and many were likely to be victims of domestic violence and have drug and alcohol problems.
As well, a large proportion had caring responsibilities and were homeless on release.
“When they come out of prison they often have nowhere to go to but the family home [and] that leads into women reoffending, because prison is the safest place for them to be,” she said.
Ms Glass said that women needed transitional support and housing to stop them returning to prison. Around 44% of female prisoners are homeless after a period of supported accommodation on release.
There is also a compelling case for specific programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are massively overrepresented in the system, to reduce the numbers who end up in prison in the first place and lower reoffending rates. For example, having Aboriginal welfare officers in prisons and putting money into justice reinvestment initiatives.
Justice Reinvestment is about diverting money spent on prison into rehabilitation and reintegration programs designed to reduce offending rates, break the cycle of recidivism and increase community safety.
Texas introduced this approach in 2007 to halt growing prisoner numbers and put money into pre- and post-release treatment and diversion programs and improving parole and probation practices, e.g. by reducing parole caseloads.
The result was a fall in prisoner numbers of 1,125 between 2008 and 2010, saving $443.9 million in 2008-9, which was then redirected to further treatment and diversion programs and replicated in 27 other American states.
However, the Victorian Ombudsman report admits that Texas was starting from a low base and that this might be harder to replicate in Victoria. As well, most upfront savings were from closing existing prisons or cancelling plans to build new ones, an option unavailable in Victoria given the pressure on prison capacity.
Ms Glass is adamant that tackling this complex problem first requires a “whole of government” approach and that it can be done.
Of course, the problem is a large and complicated one, particularly because strategies are needed at three clear points in the cycle: diversion and justice reinvestment programs to stop offending in the first place; rehabilitation programs inside prisons to prepare people for life on the outside and transition programs upon release. Transition programs need to address finding a job and a home and support dealing with addictions and health problems.
“Long term solutions do not lie within the walls of our prisons or with a single government department. Victoria needs a whole-of-government approach to focus on the causes of crime rather than its consequences,’ Ms Glass said.
“If we continue in this way, current trends in both prisoner numbers and cost mean it will not be long before we have to make hard decisions between prison beds or hospital beds, better schools or more security,” Ms Glass said.
She says programs that are known to work must be properly evaluated and then scaled up.
“What the state needs is to look at the good practice that exists, which is piecemeal, both inside the prison system and outside,” she said. “There’s good work that’s already been done inside the state in relation to diversion from prison, for example.”
“We need to bring in some clear targets that don’t just address what goes on in the prison system.”
Ms Glass cites examples including the Drug Court in Dandenong, which saw a 34 per cent reduction in reoffending 24 months; Koori courts in Melbourne and Victoria, Collingwood’s Neighbourhood Justice Centre which reduced reoffending by 16.7 per cent within 2 years and the Assessment and Referral Court List at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court for people with mental illness or cognitive impairment, which delivered an estimated benefit of between $2 and $5 for every dollar spent.
It was also important to look at best practice internationally, such as New Zealand’s whole of government approach, where the government is on track to reduce reoffending by 25 per cent by 2017 and some countries overseas, such as the UK, where prisoners can learn online from their cells.
New Zealand’s Reducing Crime and Reoffending Result Action Plan tackles four priorities to improve rehabilitation and reintegration.
These include: expanding drug and alcohol rehabilitation and treatment in prison and during transition into the community; improving rehabilitation services; boosting participation in education and employment and creating post-release employment pathways and establishing reintegration centres through community/government partnerships.
“The public expects violent offenders to serve time, but offenders must also be better coming out than when they went in if we’re going to reduce crime,” Ms Glass said.
“We also know that prison is the most expensive option and that there are alternative approaches which work well in appropriate cases to change offender behaviour and reduce reoffending.”
She said Victoria had already begun to take some important steps, such as starting to rigorously evaluate programs. Evaluation is essential to concepts such as justice reinvestment, to show the savings such programs can achieve compared with the $270 a day it costs to incarcerate someone.
“Change is already happening, certainly within the prison system, to look at many of the problems that I’ve identified. What will take longer are the issues outside prison.”
Ms Glass makes 25 recommendations at the end of her report, notably taking a whole of government approach including shared objectives, targets and data across departments.
She also recommends piloting and evaluating local crime prevention programs; building on successful current court-based interventions; identifying and screening prisoners with a cognitive disability and a stronger emphasis on prisoner case management, amongst other things.
Ms Glass said the Victorian government were generally supportive of the report’s recommendations but she would be monitoring their progress and holding them to account.