We are interested in how we might think differently about criminal justice and community safety.
The sentencing, treatment, and post-sentence management of people who have committed offences has been the subject of considerable interest in Australia over the last decade. Several comprehensive reviews of criminal justice policy are now available; relating both to the management of those who have committed serious offences, and as part of wider reviews of parole systems. Most of these conclude that the way forward is to strengthen our current system which is predicated on the idea of punishment and deterrence. Despite the intuitive appeal of the idea that harsher punishments will deter criminal behaviour, this is simply not the case. In fact the available evidence suggests that most people will become more—rather than less—criminally oriented because of their custodial experience. So, how might we think differently about this?
- Let’s think about where people in the criminal justice system have come from. We now have consistent evidence to demonstrate that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), a term used to describe the cumulative effects of both maltreatment (physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and physical and emotional neglect) and household dysfunction (parental separation, domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, and incarceration) before the age of 18, are not only prevalent in criminal justice populations, but also that those with a higher number of ACEs are the most likely to engage in serious, violent, and chronic offending. In other words, people who offend typically have childhood experiences of maltreatment and disadvantage that are not only often traumatic but also potentially formative in their development. We also are now beginning to understand how these experiences have legacies—in how people think, feel, and behave—that relate directly to their risk of committing criminal offences. And so, rather than punish, why not think more about how these developmental legacies might be addressed and work constructively with people to help them lead healthy, happy and law-abiding lives.
- Let’s think about what victims of crime actually want. Victims are engaged with sentencing and parole at several points in the criminal justice process—as witnesses or complainants at the hearing stage, at the victim impact statement stage in sentencing, in submissions to parole hearings, and when being advised about parole outcomes. As a result, victims’ experiences (both harmful and beneficial) are not necessarily specific to any stage of the justice process, but rather reflect their interactions with the entire justice system. In general, interactions with police are most favourably rated by victims of crime, whilst the court and sentencing stages are typically much less positively experienced. Whilst there is an assumption that victims of crime are generally more punitive than other members of the public, this is not necessarily the case. Submissions made by victim support agencies and victim advocates (and others) have been critical of more punitive public policies such mandatory sentencing, arguing that such sentences reduced the likelihood of effective rehabilitation, and would not achieve greater levels of community safety. Rather, many victims of crime want to know that the perpetrator will receive help and will access the types of services that ensure that similar offences will not be committed in the future.
- So why don’t we simply offer mental health services and trauma treatment to people in prison? It is very hard to access mental health services in Australian prisons, and psychological therapies to address trauma symptoms are rarely available. However, medicalising the problem is probably not the best way forward—we will never have the quality and depth of mental health services that we need to meet the needs of the prison population. Instead of looking back over what has gone wrong in their lives, we might try to help people to look forward—to help them overcome adversity by working towards goals that are meaningful and fulfilling for them and which are incompatible with a criminal lifestyle.
- Connections are important. The work of the Healing Foundation, although not directly concerned with the criminal justice system or the delivery of rehabilitation services, tells us—from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective—how significant the idea of connection is to personal change. Whether this be connection to country, connection to culture, or connection to body, it is important that we support people to maintain as strong a connection as possible.
- Family is important. Connections to family and kinship systems are central to the functioning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies and important determinants of wellbeing in all people. People in prison are separated from their families—and relationships often fracture and end during time in custody. Children are deprived of the opportunity to form close relationships with their parent and parents are unable to fulfil their responsibilities as carers. This in turn can trigger their own memories of maltreatment and adversity and cause people to simply lose hope in the future and give up on efforts to lead a law abiding life.
- Our conclusion from this is that anything we can do to support family connection for people in prison is likely to be helpful. And we should not forget that the children of people in prison have not done anything wrong. Our book project is a simple—we just provide the opportunity for parents to show their love for their child as their birthday comes around. Giving a simple gift is not always an option for those in prison and the gift of a book can help their children to develop important literacy skills that will help them in the lives going forward.