Opportunity for change in justice system (The Examiner Talking Point, 16/08/23)

Adrienne Picone, CEO, TasCOSS

All Tasmanians deserve to feel safe and supported in their families and communities.  

As the peak body representing community services and Tasmanians living on low incomes, TasCOSS advocates for laws, policies and practices to support Tasmanians, their families and communities to live a good life.  

Making sure our systems are fair, and that all Tasmanians can access the support they need, is a key part of our work. We are concerned the current Tasmanian criminal justice system is failing to meet our needs. 

When many of us think of prisoners, we may imagine violent criminals who have caused harm to our families and friends. We may think of prisons as a way to make our community safer, protecting us from individuals who we see as dangerous and providing a disincentive for others who may commit crimes.  

The reality, however, paints a different picture.  

Most prisoners in Tasmania have been incarcerated for non-violent crimes. More often than not, people who end up in our jails are likely to have experienced significant disadvantages, such as poverty, homelessness, mental health issues or childhood trauma.  

And while prison may be seen as an opportunity for offenders to rehabilitate, too many prisoners are currently unable to receive the treatment or support they need — such as treatment for mental health conditions or substance dependency — to make meaningful changes in their lives.  

We may think prisons act as a deterrent towards committing future crimes, but recent reports highlight that many Tasmanians who have been to prison are continuing to offend post-release.  

Not only is prison not working as a deterrent, it may actually be causing crime, particularly for young people. Early involvement in the criminal justice system means young people are more likely to commit crimes and end up in jail as adults, taking away opportunities for education, training and employment. Given the harrowing evidence presented at the Commission of Inquiry, we also know too many Tasmanians have experienced shocking harms within these very institutions which are intended to protect us all. 

Having made the decision to close Ashley Youth Detention Facility, and after hearing from professionals across Tasmania and the nation in the current Parliamentary Inquiry into Tasmanian Adult Imprisonment and Youth Detention Matters, the Government now has the opportunity to make meaningful changes to our justice system.  

We believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Government to invest in those organisations who already know and support our families, communities and children.  

The evidence is clear — we need to work with all Tasmanians to address issues such as poverty and homelessness which are contributing to involvement in crime.  

We need to divert children and adults from the criminal justice system by offering opportunities to engage in treatment and training.  

We need to provide people involved in our court and prison systems with greater chances to receive professional support and link in with community organisations, who must be adequately funded and resourced to meet the actual demand for their services.  

And we need to embrace alternative, therapeutic models for our prisons and courts to make sure they are safe, culturally appropriate and effective at preparing prisoners for life post-release.  

The good news is we know what works. All that is needed is the will and the investment to make it happen. 

Adrienne Picone is chief executive of the Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS).