In the last three months Victorians have witnessed the release of two major reports that unfortunately did not received the media coverage they deserved. Considered together, they provide an extremely damning assessment of our claim to be ‘the land of the fair go’ and they should make us seriously reconsider the direction of our public policy.
The first one was the Dropping Off the Edge (DOTE2015) report, released in July 2015 by Jesuit Social Services. The report reveals little has been achieved over the past 16 years to alleviate difficulties in the most problem-plagued areas of Australia. According to DOTE2015, those living in the Victorian top 3% of postcodes for disadvantage are three times more likely to be experiencing long-term unemployment or to have been exposed to child maltreatment.
DOTE2015 also confirms the enduring cumulative social disadvantage of a small number of localities across Australia. Year after year Broadmeadows, Corio, Doveton, Frankston North and others continue to feature in the lists of the most vulnerable postcodes, suggesting there is either nothing being done or what is being done is not working.
The second document is the Victorian Ombudsman’s Investigation into the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners in Victoria (OBE2015), published in September 2015. According to Ombudsman Deborah Glass, “while the public is understandably horrified by violent crime, we cannot keep pouring funds into a correctional system that is not making us safer”. Why is a senior public servant using such strong language?
According to OBE2015, Victoria’s prison population exploded by 25 per cent between 2011 and 2014. In this period, the budget for correctional services has risen by 31 per cent to $1.04 billion. At a cost to the Victorian taxpayer of around $270 a day per prisoner, prisons are an expensive investment that yields extremely poor results, as nearly one in two prisoners are returning to jail within two years of release.
OBE2015 paints a clear link between disadvantage and imprisonment. For instance, half of Victoria’s prisoners come from six per cent of postcodes. Prisoners are far less likely to have finished school than the average Victorian and have dramatically higher rates of substance abuse, mental illness and acquired brain injury. Even more importantly, prison experience is often multigenerational: the children of prisoners are six times more likely to be imprisoned than their peers.
When the findings of these two reports are put together, the headline is quite clear: we are doing nothing (effective) to improve the conditions of the most vulnerable in our community. This makes our state less safe, and we are responding by building very expensive prisons that not only make disadvantage worse but also act as ‘criminal training’ warehouses.
As a community worker in Broadmeadows, over the last ten years I have witnessed dozens of crisis situations that, with the context provided by these reports, amount to a regional emergency much larger than the sum of its parts.
Based on my experience, it is clear that the allocation of adequate resources to ensure that children and young people growing up in these areas have the necessary support to successfully complete their education and break this vicious cycle is an absolute priority.
Our current drug laws are one of the obvious ways to unlock some of the precious additional resources that would be needed to seriously tackle disadvantage in Victoria. We also need to consider them as they are not serving their intended purpose of protecting our community.
Last week I attended the Broadmeadows Magistrates Court in order to meet with the outgoing Regional Coordinating Magistrate Mr Robert Kumar. Mr Kumar was running late, so I was asked to sit in one of the court rooms. Armed with a good book, I was determined not to pay attention to the proceedings as I felt it was none of my business.
Unfortunately I could not help but recognise the young lady sitting in the dock. She was accused of many crimes, including a serious aggravated burglary charge. I kept looking at her, in vain trying to remember in what circumstances we had met. The young lady was completely disengaged from the court proceedings, clearly much more worried about the fact that she was likely not to see her toddler for quite a long time. The prosecutor listed a long litany of offences, and proceeded to interview a member of the police who provided more details about the case. Apparently fuelled by an ice addiction, she and her co-accused had gone into a crime spree, breaking into a house and several cars, and it was clearly not the first time. Interestingly, despite a long history of drug-fuelled crime, the accused had never been offered drug and alcohol counselling.
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