OPINION: The continual rise in incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians represents nothing short of social policy disaster.
If reducing the numbers of those in prison is to be achieved, then we need to end the reliance on incarceration and invest more into new thinking and rigorous research on non-incarceration alternatives.
Marking 20 years of monitoring since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Australian Institute of Criminology finally released its 'deaths in custody' report last Friday and the figures reaffirm the increasing over-representation of Indigenous persons in custody.
In 20 years rates have gone from one Indigenous person in seven incarcerated to one in four.
Indigenous persons make up 26 per cent of the prisoner population yet only constitute 2.5 per cent of the Australian population.
The over-representation of Indigenous persons in Western Australian prisons is the highest of any Indigenous group in the OECD.
Addressing Indigenous over-representation in custody requires new thinking and tested approaches to the offender population.
Firstly though, politicians and the public alike need to understand and admit that the current policy ethos, and its reliance of incarceration, is a failure, both socially and economically.
Australia spends $2.6 billion a year incarcerating adults. Punitive penal policies cost Australia big time.
While happy to scrutinise the effectiveness and efficiencies of all other sectors and services, political authorities seem quite content to overlook the billions poured into the prison system.
The return on this 'investment' amounts to very little. It simply does not prevent re-offending.
Longitudinal studies show that two-in-five people are re-imprisoned within two-to-five years of release.
Those who advocate for new thinking beyond the current social policy failures have hailed Justice Reinvestment (JR) as one new approach.
Justice Reinvestment was introduced to the US in 2003 by the Open Society Institute and has subsequently been adopted in eleven US states.
It involves identifying geographic areas from where significant numbers of the incarcerated population emanate and investing in services in these areas.
Importantly, at the policy level JR aims to divert funds that would be spent on criminal justice matters (primarily incarceration) back into local communities to fund services that are said to address the underlying causes of crime, thus preventing people from engaging with the criminal justice system.
Detention under this model is seen as a last resort - for only the most dangerous and serious offenders.
The goal is to shift the culture away from imprisonment and to restoration within the community through restorative health, social welfare services, education-employment programs and programs to prevent offending.
The effectiveness of JR was reported on at the First National Summit on JR in Washington in 2010, where lawmakers from several American states discussed how they had enacted policies to avert projected prison growth, saving several hundred million dollars, while decreasing prisoner numbers and recidivism rates.
Australian scholars have reservations about the type of JR model adopted in some US states, specifically querying who controls and receives the funding. Is it the community-sector or another state agency?
Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Dr Tom Calma commended JR as a possible solution to Indigenous over-representation in Australia's criminal justice system. Several other Australian commentators have followed suit.
Despite the increasing popularity of JR, Australia so far lacks evidence to support it beyond its appealing rhetoric and, some might argue, simplistic notion as a viable policy alternative.
Members of the Indigenous Offender Health Research Capacity Building Group (IOHR-CBG) and the Australian Justice Reinvestment Project based at the University of NSW have begun research efforts to address this paucity of information.
Following two national Justice Reinvestment forums convened by IOHR-CBG member Dr Jill Guthrie, a three-year JR research project has begun at National Centre for Indigenous Studies.
Using a case study approach, the research explores the conditions, governance and cultural appropriateness of reinvesting resources otherwise spent on incarceration, into services to enhance juvenile offenders' ability to remain in their community.
The Australian Justice Reinvestment Project is currently is examining JR models from overseas in order to provide a sound theoretical and practical foundation for the future development of JR strategies in Australia.
There is also a Citizens' Jury research project being run this year by IOHR-CBG researchers aimed at eliciting the values and priorities of a critically informed Australian community with respect to JR.
Citizens' Juries have been used in various policy fields internationally, including in health in Australia. They involve bringing together group of randomly selected citizens, giving them a variety of evidence-based information on the issues to hand and asking them, as representatives of the community, about their preferences for certain policy options or priorities for resource allocation.
The project also assesses how the results of the Citizens' Juries might influence the decision making of government policy makers.
Research of this nature is critical in order to imagine and test new and viable alternatives to incarceration. Unfortunately, the current amount invested in such research is minute.
As the recently-emerged adage says, a 'tough on crime' approach needs to be replaced by a 'smart on crime' approach. A new policy platform to justice is well overdue.
This platform must be informed by evidence and not the tired political populism that exploits the fears of the electorate if we are to ever make inroads in reducing the hugely disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rate in Australia.
Paul Simpson and Michael Doyle are research fellows with the Justice Health Research Program at the Kirby Institute, UNSW, and are also members of the Indigenous Offender Health Research Capacity Building Group.
This opinion piece was first published in The Drum.