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What are we really achieving by continuing to fill up our local jail?

By Rebecca Vassarotti 5 July 2018 27

Once again our local jail, the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC), is almost full. This is not the first time. It was only 2014 when AMC was overflowing and resulted in some detainees having to be housed in an alternative facility while a $50 million extension to the jail was undertaken to increase the capacity to over 500 male and female detainees.

Despite this recent significant expansion we once again are facing a situation where the AMC is almost at capacity. In many ways, this is not all that surprising. When the building of a local jail was originally proposed, there were many advocates who feared that we would follow the global trends of demand spiking once these types of facilities are built. Generally with jails, the principle of  ‘if you build them, they will come’ prevails, and this is exactly what has occurred in the ACT. At the time of building this facility, there were particular concerns regarding the impact on women, when the decision was made to co-locate women in the same facility, given the strong evidence that community-based solutions were the best way to respond to women interacting with the justice system.

The filling of the jail has occurred at a time where we are seeing falling crime rates in the Territory. We hear that some of it is being driven because of increased family and domestic violence offences but this doesn’t explain the large increase in numbers.

When we look at some of the demographics of our prison population, there are real concerns. The characteristics of our detainees are worryingly similar to many jail populations across Australia. Far too many of them are Indigenous, around 21% of the jail population, whereas in the general population they represent less than two per cent of the population. A large proportion of them suffer from mental health conditions – around 80% of Australian prisoners report mental health issues (compared with 31% of the general population). Many of them are struggling with alcohol and other substance abuse issues, and a majority, particularly in the female detainee cohort, have been victims of crime themselves – in the form of sexual abuse and family and domestic violence at some point in their lives.

Rethinking how we are approaching this issue is not about being ‘soft on crime’ but deciding where we want to put our investment – particularly when we know it costs us around $160,000 a year to house just one detainee in AMC, and any further expansion is going to cost many million dollars in capital costs.

There is strong evidence that a justice re-investment approach provides a framework for us working to keep people out of jail and support those who are there not to return. There have been some very positive programs introduced in recent years that are trying to do just this and that seem to demonstrate that this is something we need to invest in further.

Examples include the ‘Extended throughcare program’ which aims to provide intensive support for detainees once they leave prison. The program has been evaluated and is delivering good results, with a drop of around 23% recidivism – a significant drop. The High-Density Housing Project has also been running for a number of years and has seen violent crime reduced by 50%, property crime by 60% and disturbance incidents by 49%. As well, it has been demonstrated to save police time around $0.50 for every $1 invested. We have also seen the Detention Exit Community Outreach program (DECO), operating over the last three years to provide transitional support for individuals with a diagnosed mental illness who are exiting detention and transitioning back into the community, is delivering strong results. Over the three years of the program, of the 81 people who participated in DECO as of June 2017, only six people, or seven per cent, have re-offended. Specific programs focusing on the Aboriginal detainee population, such as the Yarrabi Barirr Program are also yielding promising results.

While these programs have been delivering some good results, there is clearly much more that needs to be done to stop the ever-increasing demand within our jails. We know it can be done – amazingly in the ‘tough on crime’ American state of Texas, governments are decommissioning jails because their diversion and rehabilitation programs have been so successful. The Netherlands has had a declining prison population for a decade which has forced them to import prisoners to ensure that their prison system remains viable. Factors that have been attributed to Netherlands low crime rate (only around 10,000 people in a population of 17 million) include relaxed drugs laws, a focus on rehabilitation and an electronic monitoring system that allows people to be in the workforce. The last initiative is believed to reduce the rate of recidivism rate by up to half, compared to sending people to jail.

I think it is time to get serious in implementing more justice reinvestment programs to head off the need for further money being sunk into our criminal justice system. What do you think?

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27 Responses to
What are we really achieving by continuing to fill up our local jail?
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Jackson Bond 9:59 am 08 Jul 18

Maybe we should take a lesson from Alexander Maconochie himself.

He believed that prisoners sentences should be indefinite – the criminals would have to earn a certain number of ‘marks’, or credits for good behaviour and hard work, before they were released. To earn enough marks to be released they must work and behave. Dont work or behave? Fine, but you will never get enough ‘marks’ to buy your release.

‘Marks’ could also be exchanged for luxuries if the prisoner was so inclined (although this would mean it took longer to save the required marks for release). Under Maconochie, the criminals would pay for everything with ‘marks’ they earned. The only free items were a subsistence diet of bread and water.

The centre is named after him, how about we start adhering to the principles he believed in

aussie2 6:56 pm 07 Jul 18

Fascinating commentary. $160K each eh? TV, Foxtel, Netflix and a host of other things. Jail=punishment, removal of outside benefits I thought? I believe the recidivist rate is so high because those incarcerated are not given outside training that will equip them to work in the community. Not just baking bread, repairing cars, building and other trades. I am aiming at low risk prisoners. I would love to see those figures and these folk out in the community without a big sign on them saying “I am an inmate of Maconochie”. Noone needs to know! My two bobs worth. Perhaps someone night speak authoritatively on that one-in the government!

Aidan Lewis 11:27 pm 06 Jul 18

Angela, for your studies

Grimm 3:25 pm 06 Jul 18

What are we accomplishing? Not much by sending them to the Monaro Marriott.
We should be sending them to an actual prison, for punishment, not a Government funded holiday camp. Foxtel, internet access etc etc. Better conditions than half of them have outside gaol. Hardly discouragement to return.

Blen_Carmichael 11:39 am 06 Jul 18

I see the author goes to great lengths to stress how detrimental prison is for women. Does she have any comment about the gender that makes up the remaining 90 per cent of prisoners?

Justin Sevi 10:37 am 06 Jul 18

But its drug free and worlds best human rights practice we were assurred, got to be worth the money right ?

Jeff Gadd 3:08 am 06 Jul 18

$160,000 a year is offensive to taxpayers. Apparently crime pays well for filth.

A_Cog 9:49 pm 05 Jul 18

Rebecca, I seriously disagree with everything you’ve said, interpreted, referenced and quoted.
1. Vinnies “trialled” a justice reinvestment program here in Oaks Estate. Crime doubled immediately, and remains 70% higher than before the program started.
2. The Throughcare review does not disclose which suburbs the program was trialled in, so nobody can actually review the crime stats to see if paroled crims went straight on to commit other offences…
3. …but what we do know is that the ACT has the highest rate of recidivism in Australia, so it seems verrrry likely Throughcare is a fraud. But until the govt releases the full suite of data for an independent review (and that review was NOT independent) we can only hope that people are not being exposed to violent crims…
4. …and the ACT Police have the lowest crime solving rate, so paroled crims continuing to offend are unlikely to be caught…
5. …which may explain why s-x assault stats in the ACT continue to climb scarily quickly, assaults are up, as too are car thefts, thefts, burglaries, property damage. So when you say “we are seeing falling crime rates in the Territory” I have absolutely no idea how you can say that when the crime stats show the exact opposite.
5. The $160K cost of AMC is nearly double what it would cost if we’d never built that joke jail and kept sending crims to NSW.
6. Your Greens colleague Rattenbury continues to run that jail as badly as Manus and Nauru, so the mental health and drug issues you refer to would not be so bad with a ‘competent’ minister, to put it gently.

This piece is seriously flawed and misinformed.

Ben Roberts 9:45 pm 05 Jul 18

Capital punishment.

Skyring 4:48 pm 05 Jul 18

A predictable slew of comments from those who don’t understand the justice system. Corporal and capital punishment isn’t what we do in Australia.

The punishment is deprivation of liberty, with the added bonus of a chance of education and rehabilitation.

Sadly, the high principles always fall short. The jail is always full, the expenses pile up, and the busy prison officers are as open to corruption as their colleagues in other states.

    Jackson Bond 10:01 am 08 Jul 18

    “Corporal and capital punishment isn’t what we do in Australia.”….at the moment. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider it. Capital punishment would have overwhelming public support.

Guy Noble 2:25 pm 05 Jul 18

160k a year??? Back to bread and water me thinks ;-) do they really deserve pc's, tv's, eating better than some on the streets.... Id rather a rapist, murderer, child molesterer dead than costing me thatmuch... Capital punishment?

    Peter Mackay 4:52 pm 05 Jul 18

    I suggest that most of the crimes are drug-related. Seriously, there just aren't that many rapes and murders and such in the ACT to generate 500 inmates. Just wht sort of a city do you think we are?

    Guy Noble 4:55 pm 05 Jul 18

    who said they all are?? but id rather not be paying to keep smeone like Rappell

    Michael Egan 7:14 pm 05 Jul 18

    Probably find a lot are for breaching AVO orders multiple times.

    Some justified breaches, some not.

    %70 on remand in VIC are there for that reason

    Alex Thomson 1:25 pm 06 Jul 18

    I think you'll find capital punishment is far more expensive

Richard Parker 2:09 pm 05 Jul 18

Actually the evidence on Justice Reinvestment is far from “good”. Evaluation of offender interventions is quite complex as most evaluations fail to account for selection effects (those who participate in interventions are almost universally lower risk than those who don’t, biasing the evaluation in favour of finding “it works”). Similarly, appeals to use Restorative Justice approaches (which fail to reduce recidivism) fall victim to the attraction of bright and shiny policies, that make politicians look good, but fail to address the problem.

The solution is not simple, but involves full adherence to the 15 What Works principles that have been extensively researched. You wouldn’t be happy if your mechanic did 80% if what was needed to fix your car. The solution is to stop engaging in panaceaphilia (Thanks Prof. Gendreau!) and commit to doing properly what works.

As a footnote, the original budget for the AMC (“World class rehabilitation facility) contained no funding for program facilitators. And it was supposed to be twice the size.

Paul South 12:41 pm 05 Jul 18

Find out why they are in there and fix the problem. No bleeding hearts, No string em up and drawn and quartered. Every child is born prety much a blank canvass. So the problem happends from 0 to detention

Joan O'Callaghan 12:35 pm 05 Jul 18

Thanks Ms Vassarotti. People point the finger. But, as victim, & having had close kin murdered, I wish we'd pull the finger out. Just as with disease, it costs less if we 'inoculate' everyone from crime. Crime prevention's everyone's job. It starts before birth. (When I delivered babies from drug & alcohol-soaked wombs to disadvantage & DV, I expected the worst. Few escaped being known to police by 10. One I re-encountered years later in the old Remand Centre). If we genuinely believe every baby deserves a fair go & want to reduce crime, (& Emergency Room waiting times etc), we must minimise harm. Just be kind. It starts in our neighbourhood where we are kind to the person with mental illness & the pregnant girl &/or kid who's doing it tough. If we can, we pay team rego' fees, & drop the kid to training. We give the indigenous kid a job. At the macro level we'll save taxpayers money if we follow Dutch or Scandinavian models that focus on drug rehab' & restorative justice. We should confront our racism so that jails don't bulge with indigenous people. Canberrans are smart. (But it seems we prefer to point the finger).

bikhet 11:15 am 05 Jul 18

I agree that the filling of the AMC and the reasons for it are matters of concern, but I’d prefer that it be done in an intellectually rigourous way – which this article doesn’t. To take two examples:

1) “The filling of the jail has occurred at a time where we are seeing falling crime rates in the Territory. We hear that some of it is being driven because of increased family and domestic violence offences but this doesn’t explain the large increase in numbers.”
Could it be that the police are getting better at solving crimes? Unlikely, I know, but still possible. Or it may be that sentences for crimes are moving to become more in line with community expectations.

2) “Far too many of them are Indigenous, around 21% of the jail population, whereas in the general population they represent less than two per cent of the population.” This implies they are being discriminated against in the justice system. That’s not the only possible reason. They may be committing 21% of the crimes. This latter possibility was one possible outcome of an analysis I heard some years ago in an interview with the head of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

Yes, it’s a problem, but it won’t be solved if people misinterpret, or misrepresent, the evidence.

Tasha Krahe 11:03 am 05 Jul 18

$160K a year? seriously! stop pampering them and make it a jail

Joan O'Callaghan 10:44 am 05 Jul 18

Out homes will keep being broken into, (& the criminal-justice & health & welfare systems will still burst at the seams), so long as we fail to address the real causes behind crime & disadvantage.

Dave Ferymtok Ward 10:07 am 05 Jul 18

Demographics are irrelevant. The only correlation that matters for incarceration is the crime committed. The race, gender, drug dependence, or mental health status is irrelevant if the magistrate or judge has sentenced appropriately.

JC 9:28 am 05 Jul 18

I think one of the bigger problems is how the legal system is so politicised. Governments are forced by political opponents and the illinformed to take certain actions to “look tough” l, end result fuller jails.

Plenty of examples of that in this board and the Canberra Crimes.

James_Ryan 8:44 am 05 Jul 18

Thought provoking article. Thank you Rebecca.

The advantage for the justice system and a prison like the AMC (situated in a progressive community but lagging well behind in terms of best practice) is that by respecting available evidence we don’t have to invent anything new to get better outcomes.

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