by Elena Campbell, Associate Director, Research, Advocacy and Policy
The Victorian Government recently announced a new authority to oversee the management and supervision of serious offenders upon release. The reform stems from recommendations by the independent Harper Review which, when fully implemented, will go a long way towards improving our response to serious crime.
Certainly, there is room for this improvement across the board. Despite overwhelming evidence that sending more people to prison does not make us safer – that investing in health, education and social supports does more to prevent crime – we fall back on costly, punitive approaches which entrench criminal tendencies.
Despite the fact that we still know comparatively little about patterns of offending or the risk that individual – rather than typologies of – offenders might present, we persist in classifying them according to category, then wonder why they do not perform to type. We also fail to take account of other serious offending, such as longstanding violence against family members. So normalised is the experience and use of family violence amongst certain offender populations that it becomes perversely invisible to a system which needs to know.
Further, despite evidence that most (but certainly not all) who commit heinous crimes existed on the margins, we cling to the objective of re-integration following release. We cross our fingers and hope that the limited supports our system provides will be sufficient for offenders to establish a life in the community when some may have never been established or ‘integrated’ in the first place.
This task of re-integration – or simply integration – is the missing piece in the equation. As the Review itself noted, the reforms it has recommended will only achieve so much while they remain disconnected from what happens in the community. Social supports; employment; education; and positive social networks are just as crucial – including the capacity of an offender ‘to be viewed as a reformed…person by …the community’.
After all, it is in the community that an offender’s criminal tendencies have developed, though they may be honed in custody. It is in the community that an offender might start to envisage a different way to live. It makes sense, therefore, that the community bear some responsibility for the work to reintegrate – or simply integrate – people who have been so firmly on the outside.
Evidence points to the direction in which we should head, with studies confirming the value of practice which, amongst other things, intervenes early in an offender’s contact with the justice system; assesses and responds to ‘spikes’ in risk; is tailored to individual needs; involves multi-agency collaborations; fosters pro-social relationships; and provides a stable, ongoing contact in a client’s life.
A small number of dedicated community services – in Victoria and interstate – work to model this pro-social behaviour; to foster positive networks and provide this stable contact. This includes through case worker support for extended periods upon release, often functioning as the only continuous relationship for an otherwise isolated individual. It also includes provision of Circles of Support and Accountability – a group of trained volunteers who meet with an offender to encourage positive behavior and monitor any risk. Multiple studies have shown this to be effective in reducing reoffending and improving integration.
With the establishment of the new Authority, however, comes an opportunity to identify what more we can be doing as a community – to be recognising that this responsibility should be more substantially supported and shared.
This is a contentious suggestion. Nobody wants to think about the brutal offending of a hardened few. Nor do many wish to think about what is needed to reform these individuals because to do so is complex, protracted and exhausting. It is far easier and simpler to think about them safely locked away – unable to commit further crime purely because they are in a custodial environment.
With the exception of a limited few, however, most of these offenders will eventually be released. Unless we lock more and more people away at greater and greater expense, we cannot just wash our hands once someone is in the system and out of view. Nor can we expect government or the legal system to carry the entire burden, as the Harper Review rightly noted.
As unpalatable as it may seem, the community needs to step up. From the moment an offender has contact with the system we must start thinking about the task of integration, and allocate resources and energy to it. We must get smarter about understanding what drove people to offending – not to make excuses, but to understand the risk they may continue to pose and how it may be reduced. We must work out how to integrate often seriously damaged people who have caused so much damage themselves – if only to prevent them from causing it again.