Cowra Shire Council has unanimously resolved to actively support Justice Reinvestment, and to seek to raise money and support for a pilot program in the rural New South Wales town.
Mick Dodson, Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University and Professor of Law at the ANU College of Law, says Cowra’s resolution is “historic” – the first time a community has made such a commitment in Australia.
Journalist Marie McInerney went to Cowra in the lead-up to the decision late last year, to report on the project for #JustJustice and to hear what the community hopes will emerge.
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Marie McInerney writes:
A country town that votes National Party may not be the first place you would look for a justice initiative that challenges “tough on crime” approaches, but then neither is Texas, one of the US states where Justice Reinvestment originated.
Cowra lies on Wiradjuri country, stretched out along the banks of the Lachlan River in central west New South Wales.
The town is known for the Cowra Breakout, when more than 1,000 Japanese prisoners of war launched a mass escape from a detention centre on the edge of town in the dying days of World War Two. More than 200 were killed in the bloody attempt, as well as four Australian soldiers.
Now Cowra is a monument to the power of peace and reconciliation. Up a steep hill from the main street, the beauty and grace of the sculpted Japanese Gardens are testament to decades of careful, respectful work between the town, former POWs, and Japan. The town is littered with signposts, memorials and stories of the fatal 1944 breakout.
It’s hard, as a first-time visitor, not to draw a comparison between that recognition and the unmarked Erambie Aboriginal mission site on the other side of the river. Only a tin shed painted with the Aboriginal flag and the Yalbillinga Boori Day Care Centre hint at its history.
“We don’t have a lot,” says the apologetic assistant at the town’s information centre when asked for books or brochures about Erambie and its early residents, among them Mum Shirl, who later moved to Redfern and helped to found the Aboriginal medical service and the Aboriginal legal service in New South Wales.
But there is now a sense of hope that another patient, respectful process may once again transform the town, with strong Aboriginal and mainstream support for the three-year research project led by Dr Jill Guthrie. Based at ANU’s National Centre for Indigenous Studies, she’s been exploring the theory and methodology of Justice Reinvestment, a social justice concept that looks to shift spending on crime from punishment to prevention.
“It’s been a wonderful journey,” Mayor Bill West told a public forum in the town late last year when the ANU researchers presented their latest findings.
“Too often we see a problem, real or perceived, and we come up with a knee-jerk reaction that’s sometimes worse than the original problem. They’ve taken time, done it properly, identified issues and what the community thinks.”
The results, he said, were both “considerable and compelling.”
Breaking the cycle
In the lead-up to last Christmas, Aunty Isobel Simpson sits in the kitchen of her Erambie home, wincing as she lowers herself into the chair.
She’s long overdue for surgery on both knees but there’s no date yet for the operation. In the lounge, colourfully wrapped presents lie neatly underneath the decorated tree, and framed family photos rest on every shelf or ledge.
With four children, 19 grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren, the 66-year-old Elder has a feast of family stories. There’s much pride: one grandson danced with Bangarra, another is “a great little footballer”.
But her focus today is on the trouble that many Aboriginal kids in the area have had with police and the broader justice system.
It’s not just because she was at the Justice Reinvestment forum the night before. Police have come to her door three times in recent days after a robbery in town, checking the whereabouts of one of the grandkids. It’s nothing new, she says.
“Because he has been in the system, he’s done stupid things, pinching stuff, they blame him straight away,” she says. “He said the detective pulled him up in the street and searched him.”
It’s a systemic cycle for so many young Aboriginal people – early interactions with child protection and the criminal justice system that interconnect with racial profiling by police, disrupt family connections, schooling and jobs prospects, and ultimately lead to their over-representation in prison and a pattern of recidivism.
And it starts very young for many. Aunty Isobel gets me to look up a Cowra Guardian article from February 2015. It reports:
AN 11-year-old boy who sat crying in the dock at Orange Local Court on Monday had to be taken to a juvenile correction centre on Monday night as a last resort.
The report said the Cowra boy had spent the night in the cells at Orange Police Station after he was apprehended by police. Told by officials that his family could not be contacted, the Magistrate sent him to the Orana Juvenile Justice Centre in Dubbo – more than 200 kilometres away from home – “as a temporary measure”.
While the child can’t be identified for legal reasons, Aunty Isobel talks about the routine trauma involved in Aboriginal kids being taken from families, often over minor breaches of justice orders.
“It breaks your heart,” she says, beginning to cry. “You tell me what child isn’t naughty sometimes!”
She talks about how impossible it can be, without private transport or money for fares, for families to get to court appearances in neighbouring Orange or Dubbo, hours up the road.
Beyond quick fixes
It’s a familiar problem across the nation, exacerbated by past trauma, intergenerational poverty, and health issues. Aunty Isobel says court officials are led to believe children and young people have no family support, so they are either put in care or detention, and so the cycle continues.
Go down to the Cowra Courthouse on court day, she says. “It’s packed with Aboriginal people. Our kids get jumped on, always first up (to be blamed).” Then when the young ones come back to Cowra from a stint in detention or prison, they’re hard to manage, they’ve got “a real swagger”, she says. “It teaches them how to be criminals.”
Aunty Isobel grew up on Erambie, on the block she lives on now. Times were often very tough. But she feels there was more respect and better prospects. Her father worked for the Shire for 37 years, her mother at the local hospital for 19 years.
Across the paddock at the end of her street is the Cowra Aboriginal Land Council, which recently organised a week’s work for one of her grandsons, cutting back grass.
“He loved it,” Aunty Isobel says. “Up early, dressed to go, home for lunch, off again. Motivated. Now there’s nothing for him.”
Land Council CEO Les Coe says he could write a book about the issues for young Aboriginal people in Cowra. Long-term unemployment is crippling, he says. It’s not only a lack of work opportunities, but years of discrimination.
From where I sit, the education system is preparing our young people for a lifetime of incarceration. It’s all about discipline, not about education.
The kids get into trouble for acting up and it stays like that. Once you’ve got a name, that’s it: it’s passed on through the schools to the police, you become known in the community as a trouble maker, certainly well-known in the courts.
We need to get in there early and break that cycle.
Despite all that, Coe is optimistic about what Justice Reinvestment might bring. He’s been on the Steering Committee and, like the Mayor, has been impressed with the process. He says:
It’s not a quick fix, coming in and wanting to do things for 3, 6, 12 months and then leaving.
Judging by what’s happened in the US and Canada, we can develop something over a long period of time, rather than Band-aid treatment.
It’s long-term funding but also funding that’s not extra. It already exists, it’s just a matter of redirecting it.
Championed originally in the United States in response to huge overcrowding in prisons, Justice Reinvestment involves the redirection of Corrections budgets to various community priorities.
Instead of spending money on keeping people in prison, it invests in prevention: in health, education, housing, employment – whatever helps.
Mick Dodson says few people realise that it costs $400,000 a year to keep a young person locked up in juvenile detention in New South Wales.
“If Cowra’s got 10 of them locked up, you do the maths, ” he says. “That’s $4 million. Why not spend that money in the community doing good things that keep those kids out of trouble?”
He hastens to say that Justice Reinvestment is not a silver bullet or a free-for-all: “We’re not talking about keeping everyone out of prison because some people who commit offences that are horrendous are a danger to society and have to be locked up. But we’re talking about people who can’t pay their fines, doing low level crime…”
Australia is currently spending $4 billion a year on prisons: “That’s a lot of money and it’s unsustainable.”
But although a Senate investigation recommended a Justice Reinvestment approach three years ago, Australian governments have been slow on the uptake.
The Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project in Bourke is the main current focus, South Australia has committed to two trials, and the Australian Capital Territory has an official policy but no active program.
One Victorian philanthropist recently told me, as part of another discussion, they wanted to support a Justice Reinvestment program but couldn’t find a concrete way in. The ANU research may be the key to that.
There were many reasons why Cowra was “the perfect town” for the study, Jill Guthrie told the public forum in December.
Cowra is a discrete community of about 12,000 people, with a “strong and proud” Aboriginal community that make up 7 per cent of the population, compared to 2 per cent nationally.
Another important factor for the research is that the town doesn’t rely on a prison for jobs and much of its crime profile involves lower-level offences: such as traffic, public order and justice procedure offences.
It’s also been important for the researchers and the town that the project wasn’t precipitated by any “crime emergency” or huge media focus on justice issues. Its proximity to Canberra, where the ANU is based, was also helpful for logistics.
As it started up, the research team worked to get across some key messages, including that the project would take a strengths-based perspective.
The project’s focus on all of the community, not only the Aboriginal community, was also welcomed across the board, says Guthrie.
During many consultations over the three years, the research team met with representatives from education, employment, health, community service, police, judiciary and business sectors, as well as young people, parents, grandparents and carers
“Often communities are asked to spend a bucket of money in a certain amount of time and this was the opposite of that,” Guthrie says. “There was no bucket of money, no promise of funds at the end.”
But there were local champions, among them the Mayor, and a local GP who works closely with the Erambie community.
In the end, Guthrie says, the project’s approach freed people up to think more broadly, “to not think within the constraints of a certain amount of money”.
Following due process
First up was a process to identify the town’s strengths and its challenges.
Some of the protective factors that emerged were around the importance of supportive family and friends, being busy at work/school, and belonging to community groups. Two stood out: the Cowra Police Citizens Youth Club and the TAFE-based Breakaway that explores connections with culture and country. headspace was also highly valued.
Challenges included boredom and lack of prospects for young people. At a system and service level, the project heard that most local services were over-extended, often had to provide services outside their funding brief, and didn’t always work well together.
Lack of jobs, particularly at the entry level, and lack of affordable or temporary housing came up again and again. Recent figures show the wait time for all types of rental housing in Cowra is between two and five years.
From there came the data crunching. The research team calculated that the cost of incarcerating Cowra citizens over the past 10 years had amounted to $42 million. Community representatives then worked through the crime categories behind that cost, and selected which crimes they believed could or should be dealt with through non-custodial sentences.
They came up with eight categories:
- traffic offences
- public order offences
- justice procedure offences
- property damage
- drug offences
- fraud and deception
- unlawful entry with intent/burglary, break & enter.
Those categories, dubbed as “JR-amenable”, equated to about 50 per cent of crimes committed, offering a Justice Reinvestment ‘saving’ and potential funding pool of $23 million over 10 years.
The next question was, what to spend the ‘saved’ money on?
Priorities included emergency accommodation, homework support, community transport and service integration, a list of suggested improvements that both the Mayor and Mick Dodson found decently “modest” and would be “easily” funded at $2.3 million a year.
- service mapping (noting the difference between availability and access to services)
- keeping young people engaged in education “at all costs”, through after school, suspension, homework and mentoring programs
- employment and skills development
- personal safety with an emphasis on housing (emergency, halfway houses, hostels)
- community transport.
The Cowra Guardian splashed the results on its front page, announcing: “Jailing Cowra residents has cost us $46 million”, and followed up with an editorial backing Justice Reinvestment.
At its December meeting, Council declared unanimous support for Cowra to pursue a Justice Reinvestment pilot, through the formation of a Justice Reinvestment Authority, utilising a Justice Reinvestment Accord.
It was a landmark moment for the research project, and for Justice Reinvestment in Australia, says Mick Dodson.
“It’s too early to prejudge what it will look like, how long it will run, how they will fund it, but getting Council’s resolution is crucial and historic,” he says.
Mayor Bill West, a local farmer, admits that he didn’t have a clue what Justice Reinvestment was about when he walked into the research team’s first meeting.
“Mick Dodson was sitting on a bench not saying much, I was wondering where it would all go,” says the Mayor. He’s since spent much time with Dodson, and also met with current and former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioners Mick Gooda and Professor Tom Calma as part of the process, which has been “a real eye opener”.
Like Dodson, West was pleased and relieved that the process did not result in a “Taj Mahal” wish-list, but with a genuine understanding by the community of the problem and how best to deal with it: modest, practical, sensible solutions, including “a little bit of TLC (tender loving care)”.
The Mayor has been pleasantly surprised by the support in the community, including from a “sympathetic” local business sector.
Still, he is conscious not to “get caught up in the euphoria of a quick fix”. Council’s resolution doesn’t come with a budget allocation. Rather, it will need state and federal funding, as a ‘down-payment’ on the savings that could be reaped in years ahead.
The Senate investigation reported that, under one year of Justice Reinvestment, the Texas prison population increased by only 529 prisoners rather than the projected 5,141, contributing to a saving of $444 million, much of which was reinvested in community supports.
However, the Senate report also raised issues of concern around some projects in the US and UK, including about a lack of clarity in the definitions of Justice Reinvestment, lack of rigorous evaluation, and a focus on immediate upfront savings through basic justice reform which might skew future efforts.
In Cowra, there is agreement it will be crucial to get the right person to head the Authority, and that it should be someone who can keep the community united on the project. So too will be the need to prevent ’empire building’ or competition over funds.
“This is really going to be a slow process,” West cautions. But he says the premise is simple and makes sense.
He says: “We have young people out there who deserve to be looked after. You don’t have to be young to make mistakes and get it wrong, so it’s nice to be a caring and compassionate and civilised community, to give people a fair go.”
The signs are promising, with strong support in principle from local State MP Katrina Hodgkinson.
At the very least, Guthrie says, the research has built a model for other communities to explore. However, she is hopeful that a project can be started in Cowra and that the ANU will be part of its evaluation.
“I think we’d find it quite painful to have to break the relationship now,” she said. “We’ve built the trust both ways.”
Many eyes will be on Cowra in the coming months and years to see if the town again plays a pivotal role in Australia’s history and can begin to address growing levels of over-representation of Aboriginal people in our prisons.
Meanwhile, the article featured below suggests the Cowra Guardian is likely to continue keeping a close eye on the project’s progress.
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