Doing justice differently

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It’s not rocket science and it’s not Pollyanna land, doing justice differently is just about taking a cold, hard look at the evidence and acting on it, ROB HULLS says.  

What do we mean when we talk about justice?

Too often we think of justice – or what is fairly loosely termed our justice ‘system’ – as a tertiary intervention, something that activates only after things have gone wrong. What’s more, we separate the concept, particularly in the context of criminal justice, from the people who go through this system. Then we wonder why this system – designed largely in the abstract without the majority of its users in mind – isn’t more effective.

Someone once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Yet if we start to base our approach on the evidence concerning what works; and if we start to understand the profile of the users of the system better, we might start to get different and better results.

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Keeping people connected in the community means they are less likely to fall on the wrong side of the law. What does this mean, though, for how we might do justice differently?

The reality is contemporary Australian criminal justice systems are a manifestation of the way in which the community has failed certain sectors of the population. Yes, there are a small minority of very serious offenders from whom the community needs protection. The vast majority of people who hit our criminal justice system, however, are from backgrounds of profound disadvantage and marginalisation. What’s more, significant numbers experience mental illness, substance addiction or acquired brain injury; while between 70-90 per cent of inmates of any women’s prison, and many in our male prisons as well, have been victims of family violence or childhood sexual abuse.

Keeping people connected in the community means they are less likely to fall on the wrong side of the law. What does this mean, though, for how we might do justice differently?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise we should work harder to prevent this disadvantage and vulnerability in the first place – that justice systems should be as much about preventing poverty and disaffection, family violence or sexual abuse as they should be about punishment. After all, it’s pretty hard to reintegrate a prisoner into the community after sentence if they have never been integrated in the first place.

This includes women who find respite in a prison environment from the appalling violence they experience in the community. It even includes some men who commit horrific crimes, yet who may have emerged, distorted, from profoundly damaging childhoods, completely ill-equipped to function in the community.

This means we need to follow the rather surprising lead of some conservative jurisdictions in the US, who have discovered it makes far more sense to invest in education and services than to pour money into prisons – keeping kids connected with school and integrated in the community so they are less likely to fall onto the wrong side of the law. In Victoria, this is a lead we desperately need to follow, with the Ombudsman recently warning we are in danger of spending more on prison beds than hospital beds.

Where people do offend, however, we need to use the evidence about what works, as well as about the profile of system users, to deliver a better response. For example, once we recognise that 44 per cent of male inmates in our prisons have an acquired brain injury, we might realise the standard justice process will seem pretty overwhelming to them, and demand instead that prison and remand staff be trained to work in a disability environment. Once we recognise the huge number of offenders who are also victims of violent crime and trauma, we might similarly expect that services be delivered in a way that concurrently helps them to heal and rehabilitate.

Meanwhile, once we look at the profound levels of intergenerational unemployment amongst offenders, we might call for them to be linked with job opportunities and housing. Once we understand the severely low levels of educational attainment of most offenders, we might use the opportunity that connection with the justice system presents, to put people on a more constructive path of education and training.

Doing justice differently is not Pollyanna stuff, it’s about using evidence, it’s about understanding what works.

Nor is doing justice differently a complex formula. First, it’s about recognising our collective responsibility to prevent disadvantage, disaffection and trauma from occurring to begin with.

Second, it’s about understanding that, where this responsibility fails, it fails certain disadvantaged, disenfranchised and disconnected sectors of the population – that people who commit crime usually have myriad issues which have contributed to their offending.

Third, it’s about recognising that contact with the criminal justice system is a unique opportunity to address these issues – one which can harness judicial authority or the services of a Corrections environment to function as a positive intervention, rather than to warehouse the disenfranchised.

Finally, it’s about acknowledging evidence which indicates that, unless we do all of these things – unless we do justice differently and do it to scale – we won’t get any better results.

Rob Hulls is Director of the Centre for Innovative Justice 

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