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Jon Stanhope is an impressive politician, but he is wrong on some justice issues

I genuinely hold Jon Stanhope in high regard and fully support most of the decisions he made during the time when he was Chief Minister of the ACT. I am also fairly confident that when the political historians review his career, he will be assessed as one of the most professional and competent politicians to lead the ACT government.

Having said that, it gives me no pleasure to find fault with one of his recent public statements. That is the whole point – because he has a high public profile and is generally well regarded, his public opinions can easily become part of the community belief structure which underlies our justice system.

His comments were made in the context of a forum on the subject of justice reinvestment at Old Parliament House which was convened jointly by the Australian National University and the University of Canberra, and were given prominent coverage in this newspaper on December 26. A number of other speakers also addressed the seminar, but it was the views of Jon Stanhope which attracted most attention in the press.

He was even quoted on page one saying that the increasing number of prisoners in the Alexander Maconochie Centre was "a policy failure". Specifically, he went on to say, "It's a sign of failure to continue to have to build cells or add cells, it's a sign that a justice reinvestment philosophy hasn't permeated and isn't being delivered".

In my opinion, justice reinvestment is just the most recently developed idea for making the criminal justice system more effective and more humane by diverting some of the funds that are used to maintain prisons to crime prevention programs directed to individuals or communities that are thought to be at high risk of becoming involved in serious offending that will result in imprisonment.

It is a very seductive idea and has attracted a large number of followers, but in my view it has not lived up to its expectations. The first problem is that there is a very large number of people who commit criminal offences, but only a very small proportion of them end up in prison. The ratio is at least  100 offenders for every single person in prison. That means that to have a measurable impact on the imprisonment rate, enormous expenditure of money and resources would be required for crime prevention. It would probably be much more  than the total prison budget.

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But that's not the only problem. The second major issue is to decide what sort of interventions are likely to be effective with different types of potential offenders. For example, extra tuition for young people having difficulties with school work, specific training in social skills for those who don't fit in, special training in job-seeking skills, etc. All of these ideas may sound reasonable, but the problem is that many programs like these have been shown to increase rather than reduce the probability of criminal offending.

That is not to say that resources should not be devoted to crime prevention programs, but it is important that they are subjected to rigorous evaluation to find out what really works before they are implemented throughout the community.

Apart from being, in my view, over-enthusiastic about justice reinvestment, Mr Stanhope is keen to reduce, or even eliminate, recidivism as far as the inmates of the AMC are concerned. On this subject, he cited with approval the work of Associate Professor Lorana Bartels from the University of Canberra which showed that the ACT had the highest proportion of prisoners – 72 per cent, compared with a national average of 59 per cent.

I do not doubt the accuracy of these figures, but it is fatuous to suggest that this is undesirable or a sign of failure in the system without reference being made to the underlying imprisonment rate. The ACT still has the lowest imprisonment rate in Australia, and, quite frankly, the only offenders who I believe should be in jail in this jurisdiction are the relatively small numbers of first-time serious offenders and those who fail to comply with the requirements of previous sentences (custodial or community-based) and who may therefore be classified as recidivists.

It is also important to note that the ACT not only has the lowest imprisonment rate but also has by far the highest rate of non-custodial correctional orders in Australia. We should be proud of that, but there are still many short-comings in our criminal justice system and Jon Stanhope is quite right to draw attention to the most serious of them – the gross over-representation of Indigenous people in all Australian prison systems, including the ACT.

This situation is totally unacceptable, but it must be remembered that the Commonwealth government has spent millions of dollars attempting to close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Australians over a wide range of measures but it has precious little to show for its efforts. On this issue it is unlikely that the ACT will be able to do better than the other seven Australian jurisdictions. (For an up-to-date analysis of what could be done on this challenging subject, I refer to the recent book by Don Weatherburn, Arresting Incarceration: Pathways out of Indigenous Imprisonment, published by Aboriginal Studies Press in 2014.)

One of Jon Stanhope's major achievements while in office was the establishment of the Alexander Maconochie Centre. It is therefore understandable and commendable that he maintains a continuing interest in its effectiveness and efficiency. I would feel more comfortable, however, if he focused more closely on the burning issues inside the jail, such as keeping sentenced and remand prisoners separate, providing a wider range of therapeutic programs, providing more opportunities for meaningful work, and, yes, biting the bullet, encouraging the current administration to make the jail a smoke-free environment for all prisoners, staff and visitors.

David Biles is a semi-retired consultant criminologist who lives in Canberra.

biles@netspeed.com.au