Reducing crime by investing in communities


While Victoria has pursued a harsher law and order approach to sentencing, justice reinvestment  approaches appear to be proving effective in the USA and are being trialled in the UK. Michelle McDonnell outlines what the results have been overseas and recommends our politicians consider justice reinvestment over law and order approaches if they want to make our state safer.

For too long, law and order measures and prison expansion have been promoted as the ‘solution’ to crime and community safety.

Yet the evidence is mounting here and overseas that it is possible to reduce prison spending and crime at the same time.

Justice reinvestment is attracting growing support as a credible approach that invests in tackling the causes of crime, with four Australian parliamentary committees calling for a new approach, and justice reinvestment being trialled in two towns in New South Wales.

The economic and human benefits are significant, while the case that prison doesn’t work and promotes reoffending only grows stronger.

No single factor causes crime. It is generally agreed that crime is caused by a “complex interaction of individual, social, family, community, and situational factors”.1

There is a significant correlation between key elements of disadvantage, such as low income and incomplete schooling, and offending.2 Poverty, unemployment and alcohol abuse are all risk factors for offending.3 In Victoria, 25 per cent of prisoners come from just 2 per cent of postcodes.4

Poverty is a major problem experienced by people coming out of prison. Being in prison exacerbates poverty and is part of a cycle of disadvantage that increases the risk of reoffending.5

Research indicates that reducing disadvantage and increasing income equality will reduce crime,6 yet the Victorian Government, with its law and order agenda, is engaged in a multibillion dollar prison expansion program.

The net consequence of this approach is to divert spending on a broad range of programs from healthcare, housing, education or job training, all of which have the potential to reduce crime and reoffending.

The alternative justice reinvestment approach is now being tried in two towns in New South Wales; Cowra and Bourke.7 This approach redirects money spent on prisons to community-based initiatives that aim to address the underlying causes of crime, reduce crime and save money.

“Research indicates that reducing disadvantage and increasing income equality will reduce crime, yet the Victorian Government, with its law and order agenda, is engaged in a multibillion dollar prison expansion program.”

Justice reinvestment in the US and the UK
In the United States, justice reinvestment is being used to better manage prison spending and redirect some of the savings to community programs that reduce reoffending and the need to build more prisons.8 The money that would have been spent on housing medium-to-low-security prisoners is instead invested in local community programs and services that aim to address systemic disadvantage.9 This provides a viable alternative to the potentially unsustainable costs of prison expansion.

By helping to identify the local communities on which to focus, it also promotes the most efficient spending on community development. By addressing the systemic socioeconomic factors contributing to crime, justice reinvestment can provide substantial savings.10

Such programs have been successfully implemented in five states in the USA, with another 11 at various stages of research collection and implementation.11

“By addressing the systemic socioeconomic factors contributing to crime, justice reinvestment can provide substantial savings.”

The US state of Kansas saved $80.2 million over five years after implementing a justice reinvestment program, while Texas saved $210.5 million in 2008-09 from its program.12 Both states halted the growth of their prison populations, through policies including funding substance abuse programs and halfway houses for those on parole, and increasing access to education opportunities in prisons.13 They also expanded specialist courts such as drug courts, to ensure more effective sentencing by addressing the causes of offending.14

Kansas has seen a 7.5 per cent fall in its prison population. The rate at which its former prisoners have their parole revoked has almost halved, and the rate at which its former prisoners are convicted of new crimes has fallen by a third.15

During the same period, the violent crime rate has dropped by 13 per cent in Kansas and 4 per cent in Texas.16

While further long term analysis is required to understand the reasons for the drops in the crime rates, these figures appear to indicate that justice reinvestment can save money and reduce crime.

Similarly, the United Kingdom House of Commons Justice Committee has recognised the benefits of justice reinvestment in responding to local service needs, and in restructuring the organisation and funding of the criminal justice system to reflect the correlation between social exclusion and offending.17 Justice reinvestment pilots have been implemented in six local UK areas, with the final evaluation reports to be published later in 2014.18

“In Victoria, it costs about $87,000 a year to house each prisoner and an estimated $500,000 per prison bed in construction costs.”

Justice reinvestment in Australia
Four parliamentary committees have now recommended governments consider or run pilot justice reinvestment programs.19

Similarly, organisations like the Australian Human Rights Commission have recognised the potential of justice reinvestment to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the criminal justice system, given it can target high recidivism rates and patterns of intergenerational offending, through its community-based approach.20

In Victoria, it costs about $87,000 a year to house each prisoner and an estimated $500,000 per prison bed in construction costs. So if we can divert 1,000 minimum security prisoners away from prison, this will generate an annual saving of about $87 million, on top of a $500 million capital costs saving. These funds could then be reinvested in programs and services that address the causes of crime.

At Smart Justice, we recognise the pressing need to work together with our 30 partners, including VCOSS, to develop evidence-based community strategies that are based on a justice reinvestment approach.

Together as a coalition we are advocating for the next term of government to commit to undertake research, evaluation and pilot programs that determine the viability of a justice reinvestment program in Victoria and the positive impacts it could bring.

Michelle McDonnell is Senior Policy Adviser for the Smart Justice Project and the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic) Inc.

1 Caraniche, Forensic AOD treatment in Victoria, p. 65, 2011.
2 Vinson, Dropping off the Edge: the distribution of disadvantage in Australia, p. 51, 2007.
3 Weatherburn, Law and Order in Australia: Rhetoric and Reality, pp. 190-197, 2004.
4 Vinson, Community adversity and resilience, Table 3.1, p. 49, 2004.
5 Rose, Poverty and Crime in Serr (ed), Thinking about poverty, pp. 110-111, 2006.
6 Weatherburn, above n 3, pp. 190-197, Rose, above n 5, pp. 107-110; and Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, p. 144, 2009.
7 For further see: and
8 For example, see Council of State Governments Justice Center Justice Reinvestment State Brief: Kansas, 2007.
9 Schwartz, ‘Building Communities not Prisons: Justice Reinvestment and Indigenous Over-Imprisonment’, Australian Indigenous Law Review, 14, 1 (2010) 2.
10 Schwartz, above n 9, 3.
11 See State Profiles at: 
12 See State Profiles at:
13 Oakshott, ‘True Justice’, About the House, p. 47, 2010. 
14 For example, State Brief: Kansas above n.8 and State Brief(Texas) 5.
15 Oakshott, Above n 11, pp. 47-48.
16 See: Uniform Crime Reports 2009 & 2010, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Table 4.
17 Justice Committee, House of Commons, UK, Cutting Crime: The Case for Justice reinvestment, First Report (2009) [237], [240].
18 House of Commons Justice Committee Crime reduction policies: a co-ordinated approach? First Report of Session 2014–15, p. 57.
19 The Senate and Constitutional Affairs Committee References Committee, Access to Justice Report (2009) 110. The Standing Committee on Environment and Public Affairs, Legislative Council of Western Australia, Inquiry into the transportation of detained persons: the implementation of the Coroner’s recommendations in relation to the death of Mr Ward and related matters, 2011. Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee; Value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia, 2013. Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee, Parliament of Victoria, Inquiry into the supply and use of methamphetamines, particularly Ice, in Victoria, Final Report, 2014. 
20 Australian Human Rights Commission Social Justice Report, p. 47, 2010.



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