Reinvestment in justice originated in the United States more than 20 years ago as a way to reduce mass incarceration and its enormous costs by addressing the social drivers of imprisonment.
Through reinvestment in justice, communities identify and develop responses to issues that fuel high rates of re-incarceration locally, funded by a “re-investment” of funds from prison budgets. The emphasis is often on improving access for ex-convicts to essential services such as housing and reducing community-level inequalities in health care, education and other outcomes.
The Albanian government is currently implementing its 2022 commitment to provide A$81 million in funding to support justice reinvestment initiatives in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
The New South Wales government also recently pledged $9.8 million for Aboriginal-led reinvestment initiatives in Kempsey and Nowra.
But what does ‘reinvest’ mean in practice? Who decides what is financed and how?
To find out more, we spoke to Aboriginal communities in the NSW towns of Bourke, Moree and Mount Druitt.
Us reportproduced alongside these Aboriginal communities aims to convey their understanding of the reinvestment of justice.
This work invites the government to design with the community what “re-investment” means, led by those Aboriginal communities where local solutions are already being worked on.
Read more: ‘A life-changing experience’: how adult literacy programs can keep First Nations people out of the criminal justice system
Investing in Aboriginal-led solutions
We have heard that current criminal justice approaches are not working in Aboriginal communities such as Moree and Mt Druitt. Far too many Aboriginal people are being taken abroad to be locked away from family, work and education.
This breaks community and cultural connections and other elements of a healthy, thriving Aboriginal community. The scale at which this is happening is doing more harm than good and leading to re-incarceration. As one member of the Moree community told us:
They only get worse. It’s like setting them up to fail. Like it doesn’t fix it at all. Do you know anyone who went to jail and got out and been good, like better?
Aboriginal people in Moree and Mount Druitt know what it takes to change this. A member of the Moree community said:
As we’ve been saying for years, we’re the only ones who can tell people what’s wrong, the best way to fix it. And we are the only ones who can really do it.
These communities have developed Aboriginal-led governance structures and justice reinvestment programs that strengthen culture and self-determination. They aim to improve life chances to keep more Aboriginal people – especially young people – out of custody.
In Mount Druitt includes the reinvestment of justice Mounty Yarnsa project led by local youth with both lived experience of incarceration and ideas on how to reduce the contact with the justice system they want to hear:
We don’t want the next generation to go through what we went through. We want to be a voice so that others don’t have to keep repeating their stories.
Aboriginal communities such as Moree and Mount Druitt need greater access to resources and decision making to implement their solutions.
They are calling for support to put their ideas into motion, including partnerships, programs and interventions that they believe are crucial to preventing violations.
These ideas, once implemented, can work well quickly, take time to succeed, or perhaps struggle. In any case, increasing community freedom is a crucial achievement in itself.
Funding reinvestment in justice
Diverting money from prisons into reinvesting resources in communities like Moree or Mount Druitt appeals to Aboriginal people. They want divestment of what they see as highly punitive institutions that have been doing significant damage for a long time.
An idea for a funding source could be a state-level mechanism requiring the NSW government to pay an annual levy into a justice reinvestment fund.
Funds could potentially be drawn from justice expenditure allocations calculated on the basis of the number of Aboriginal people imprisoned in NSW in the relevant year.
Aboriginal people would determine where this money is spent, prioritizing reinvestment of justice and other community-led and prevention-focused approaches to Aboriginal people that are likely to reduce over-representation.
If this is achieved, the levy will decrease, as will the costs for the judiciary and the associated costs for the government.
Importantly, the huge social and economic costs to Aboriginal people of mass incarceration would also be avoided. As one member of the Mount Druitt community told us:
What is the result of prison spending? A criminal record. There are many things they can do before throwing them in jail, but that’s the first option here. Help him reconnect with his family, his culture. You could do a lot with that money.
Aboriginal people in Mount Druitt and Moree told us about other ways to “invest” in community-led ideas for change.
They want funding decisions to be based on community knowledge about which services and programs will best contribute to outcomes that are likely to help keep Aboriginal people out of prison.
A member of the Mount Druitt community told us:
We have no control here in Western Sydney. We need to have more of a say when we get money here. How will that money be distributed?
They have also identified “tipping points” pushing Aboriginal people into the justice system. These include inappropriate or biased police bail decisions, inadequate post-release support, and youth exclusions from school. They advocate for government reform in these areas.
The message of our report is clear: Aboriginal communities want to set their own priorities for change and lead that change. This is crucial to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal people.
The commitment of governments to fund justice reinvestment initiatives is definitely a positive step in the right direction.
In addition to funding, reforms in government practices and policies will also be essential to ensure that the reinvestment of justice has the best chance of success.
Read more: Australian governments should follow the ACT’s lead in building communities, not prisons