Facts not fear should drive criminal justice system

Opinion 2Labor Western Australian Senate candidate Professor Pat Dodson has rightfully put the Turnbull Government double dissolution priorities into question by asking why the rate of indigenous incarceration would not have a far greater priority for the recall of parliament that the ideological targeting of trade unions. Dodson was one of the Commissioners on the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission (1987-1991) and since its report was published, the rate of indigenous incarceration has more than doubled.

On the 25th anniversary of that report, Pat Dodson had this to say; “Accepting the status quo permits the criminal justice system to continue to suck us up like a vacuum cleaner and deposit us like waste in custodial institutions. We need a smarter form of justice that takes us beyond a narrow-eyed focus on punishment and penalties, to look more broadly at a vision of justice as a coherent, integrated whole.”

Certainly one has to wonder about the lip service clearly paid to some of the Royal Commission’s specific recommendations in regard to the levels of indigenous incarceration; “ what happened to the principle of imprisonment as last resort and the 29 recommendations relating to this issue,” said Professor Dodson, who is set to become a Labor senator.

One of the great frustrations of life in the Federal Parliament is trying to get good public policy ideas based on facts and the evidence into public policy and legislation.

For white or black, incarceration is largely a complete waste of time. Prison time is more about retribution than it is about rehabilitation. The vast majority of prisoners are there because of poverty, disability or addiction. Prisons are not the five star hotels some claim but they sure come at a five star price to us, the taxpayers.

As I said in a speech to the Senate in 2011; “Very little is being done about dangerous home environments, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, violence against women and other s and the very many situations that lead to women and youth going to prison. It’s time to knuckle down and work out why we haven’t made any progress in thirty years. It’s time to redirect those funds from building more prisons to investing in social capital and rehabilitation”. In the past five years nothing has improved, it’s simply gone backwards.

Currently the Community Affairs Reference Committee is conducting an inquiry into “The indefinite detention of people with cognitive and psychiatric impairment in Australia.” Across Australia there are people in gaol because there is nowhere else for them to go who have never been convicted of a crime; their offence is to have an intellectual or mental disability. It’s barbaric.

Professor Dodson speaks the truth when he says our justice system has been damaged by political interference: “Mandatory sentencing, imprisonment for fine defaults, “paperless” arrest laws, tough bail and parole conditions and punitive sentencing regimes had all contributed to high incarceration rates, along with funding cuts to frontline legal services and inadequate resourcing for much needed diversionary programs.”

The Conservatives love “law & order” and the vote spinning fear it drives but it’s more than time that we use our brains and the facts to drive the direction of our criminal justice system. Contrary to our opponents its Labor policy to take a far more intelligent approach to our criminal justice outcomes where locking someone up is truly the last resort. It’s not about votes, it’s about justice.

Senator Claire Moore, Labor Senator for Queensland

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