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Issue #1588      April 10, 2013

Prison overcrowding symptom of a wider malaise

The record prison numbers recently announced in WA are a symptom of a greater problem, says Civil Liberties Australia. There is a pronounced tendency in WA to resort to punishment as the first rather than the last option.

And it’s not solely in the criminal justice system.

Recently we had the story of the people living in caravans in Port Hedland simply being evicted onto the streets because the council doesn’t want a “shanty town”.

There was no acknowledgement that those people are forced into those conditions by a lack of affordable housing, and that they have no other options. Instead, wave some regulations, punish those least able to cope, and congratulate ourselves on taking a tough stance.

The same applies to our prisons.

All too often people who shouldn’t be arrested, but instead referred to some sort of support, end up before the courts. Sometimes it’s over-zealous policing, but often those suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness end up in jail because they’re a danger to themselves and a nuisance to others and there are no treatment places for them.

Their offending, such as it is, doesn’t justify prison but the police and magistrates have no other options.

If prisons were properly resourced to deliver treatment programs then this might work as a solution, even though criminalising such people – who will have to carry that mark the rest of their lives when seeking work or housing – is wrong.

But the Prisoner Review Board has been telling the government for years that it’s reluctant to release prisoners on parole because there are not enough program places in jails and in some cases, no programs at all.

Every person we send to jail costs us more than $2,000 a week – more than $100,000 a year. If we spent even half on keeping them out of jail, the outcomes for the individual and society would be better all round. In fact if we paid miscreants $1,000 a week not to re-offend we’d get better outcomes than we’re getting now. Certainly it would be cheaper on our taxes.

Even something as relatively minor as the proposal to scrap extended trading permits punishes small businesses. It risks, as Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi has said, snuffing out the revival of the city as a cultural precinct so as to take what looks like a tough stance against a handful of people who behave in an anti-social way. But that doesn’t address the problem of binge drinking, it just shifts it out of the city, probably back to Northbridge.

Reaching for the punishment lever while refusing to fund services and programs which address the underlying malaise affecting the state is irresponsible.

Worst of all, it has the opposite effect to that intended. It merely postpones re-offending, shifts antisocial behaviour, and generally makes WA a less safe, less pleasant place to live.

Simply saying “we’re building more prisons” is fiddling while Rome burns. We need innovation and investment and critical thinking and evidence-based policy. We’re getting none of those. WA deserves better.

*Rex Widostrom is WA State Director of Civil Liberties Australia

Next article – Afghanistan: The legacy of the British Empire

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