There have been a few tragic deaths in Australia recently – Emma Lovell, who died after being stabbed, allegedly by two 17-year-old boys, during a break-in, and Danielle Finlay-Jones, who was allegedly murdered by a man she met on a dating app.
These offences have triggered cries for tougher sentences (in other words, more jail time)\.
The Queensland premier, Annastascia Palaszczuk, promptly announced a suite of youth justice “reforms” after Lovell’s death primarily targeted at harsher penalties – including for factors such as offences committed at night – and the creation of new detention centres. But these measures are doomed to fail.
They may provide a brief measure of community protection by incarcerating people, but research on incarceration as a response to crime consistently shows that it has limited to no effect on reducing rates of reoffending.
When considering sentencing, the courts balance principles of just punishment, deterrence (for the offender specifically and for other people), rehabilitation, denunciation of the offence and community protection. The sentence must be proportional and parsimonious; that is, its severity must match the offence and be no more severe than needed.
The court can also take into account other factors, including prior offending history, moral culpability, knowledge of the consequences of actions, mitigating factors (such as trauma histories and mental health disorders) and aggravating factors.
Sentencing is a very complex matter, carefully directed at punishing and deterring while also encouraging rehabilitation and hope. Research has consistently found that incarceration does not reduce rates of re-offending. It has occasionally been shown to have a small positive impact when the emphasis during a period of incarceration is on rehabilitation, but also demonstrates negative effects – increasing rates of offending – when rehabilitation is not emphasised.
Incarcerating people also often allows development of an identity centered around antisociality, thus increasing risk. It is especially problematic for young offenders as they miss key developmental stages.
Justice policy in Australia echoes the carceral start of the nation, with an emphasis on punishment, brutality, and separation of people from society. This approach negates all we know about approaches to reduce offending. Law reform should be informed by criminological and forensic knowledge, rather than emotion and poorly formulated approaches designed to win votes from a fearful and angered public.
When we engage in reflexive law reform with an emphasis on longer sentences without a concomitant focus on rehabilitation, we are unlikely to deter future offending behaviour and may increase the likelihood that someone will re-offend. In other words, by agitating for harsher jail penalties, we are agitating for change which may result in more victimisation.
Most people who are incarcerated will be released someday. If they are incarcerated without access to appropriate treatment, community supervision and support, they will simply remain at similar or higher risk upon release, continuing to pose a risk to community safety. We cannot lock up our way out of an offending crisis, whether it is intimate partner violence or youth crime.
To truly reduce crime, it is important to understand the drivers of the offences, to target management and therapeutic efforts at them and to carefully utilise statistics to understand the demographics and relevant needs of offenders. For instance, research has demonstrated that rates of youth crime are declining, with the seeming spike resulting from a small cluster of very prolific and high-risk juvenile offenders with multiple complex needs including severe trauma histories and antisocial attitudes and associations.
Managing this small cohort of high-risk offenders requires:
A therapeutic contained environment.
An appropriate forensic intervention for those who have developed antisocial personality structures and attitudes or other psychological criminogenic needs.
Substance use interventions.
Housing and educational supports.
Appropriate prosocial peers and recreational activities.
And assertive community supervision and management.
While many offenders, including juvenile offenders, have histories of trauma, trauma-informed approaches are important – but not sufficient – to disrupt established offending trajectories. In my work with serious adult offenders, it’s rare to see someone who has not experienced crushing poverty, childhood trauma, difficulties with school and early substance use.
These are all relevant intervention points. Most offending occurs as part of inter-generational cycles of economic and social disadvantage, and early social intervention to end these cycles is important when planning long-term justice policy. But incarceration simply adds to these cycles of disadvantage, ensuring that our current difficulties with crime will continue well into the future.
Premier Palaszczuk said the government has done its job with the reforms, and it was now time for the courts to do theirs. Instead, it appears that the Queensland government have chosen to shun their job and have opted for easy reforms based on popular sentiment, rather than truly taking steps that may require analysis and more sustained and complex initial effort – but steps which will lead to greater long-term reductions in offending.
We have choices to make about our justice policies, and these choices will impact all the generations to come.
Dr Ahona Guha is a clinical and forensic psychologist and author from Melbourne. All views are her own