Justice system addicted to jail – ANU academic

17 May 2017

We should be calling it what it is, a catastrophe.

A leading law academic from ANU has warned that Australia's criminal justice system is addicted to incarceration, describing the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a catastrophe.

Senior Lecturer at the ANU College of Law Dr Anthony Hopkins has used National Law Week to highlight the issue, and said Australia needs to look seriously at alternatives to imprisonment that protect the community and provide real opportunities for rehabilitation.

But he said judges and magistrates often have no alternative to jail sentences because rehabilitation programs are not available. The push for incarceration is also driven by fear.

"In relation to imprisonment, we have a default reaction that is often born out of a misplaced fear that we are faced with a crime wave and that the answer is to get tougher on crime," Dr Hopkins said.

Latest figures show more than 40,000 people were in custody in Australia in mid-2016, compared to 25,000 a decade earlier. Dr Hopkins said around 56 per cent of prisoners had been in prison previously.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up over half the juveniles in detention, and 27 per cent of the adult prison population despite being only two per cent of the wider population.

"We should be calling it what it is, a catastrophe, and a matter that should cause more than alarm, but should drive real action to reduce those rates," Dr Hopkins said.

One alternative to imprisonment which has had success are Drug Courts, where offenders regularly attend and a judicial officer takes a close supervisory role over a program of interventions.

"Drug courts and judicial supervision taking place in an open-court enables the success of rehabilitation to be applauded rather than simply having failures as the focus of the story," Dr Hopkins said.

He said solutions need to tackle the issues which bring a person to the courts in the first place such as mental illness, childhood trauma, addiction, and racial marginalisation.

Dr Hopkins will outline his views at a Law Week forum ANU Explains on Wednesday 17 May at ANU.

Details of the event are available at https://law.anu.edu.au/event/panel-discussion/law-week-2017-anu-law-explains.