Funding for communities, not prisons: the promise of justice reinvestment

Preventing crime starts with data-informed, community-led solutions that address issues of grief and loss, and reconnecting to culture and country

It is a time of year when we talk about failure. Each year the Closing the Gap report is a salient reminder we are not doing enough in key areas of Indigenous health, education and employment. And one thing we know: if the federal government took the responsible step to include justice targets in Closing the Gap, we would not be meeting those either.

All this money being spent with so little result: top-down and siloed solutions, a massive disparity between spending on prisons and spending on preventing crime from happening in the first place, the worsening statistics on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander overrepresentation … why are we still getting it so wrong?

The reason – at least in part – is that the solution is complex and it involves a different way of doing business. When it comes to justice, it requires a considered analysis of what is happening across different communities – what is causing people to offend, where are the gaps and overlaps in the existing service system? And it requires community ownership of the solution.

We need a data-driven, community-led response. And we need a commitment from governments that savings realised as a result of progress made – that is, fewer people in prison – will be made available for long-term, sustainable funding of what works. That is the crux of a justice reinvestment approach.

So let’s stop focusing on failure and have a look at something very promising.

In 2013 community leaders in Bourke, in north-west New South Wales, entered into a partnership with members of the not-for-profit, corporate and philanthropic sectors to establish the first major justice reinvestment trial in Australia. The project sits within a broader strategy called Maranguka – meaning “caring for others” in the Ngemba language. It is a transformative, whole-of-community agenda for change.

As a place-based approach, the starting point of justice reinvestment is community engagement and the collection of local data. In Bourke, the community was asked what data it needed to better understand the problems facing young people, and to identify solutions. What they requested was a snapshot of life for children and young people to include prenatal health, education, mental health, drug alcohol issues, driver’s licensing and employment.

Sixty members of the community then took part in conversations about the data. Their input formed the basis of the strategy developed by the Bourke Tribal Council Growing our Kids Up Safe Smart and Strong. Target outcomes were set within the three focus areas of early childhood and parenting, eight- to 18-year-olds, and the role of men in the community. Strategic working groups have been established with the objective of reaching those targets, comprising Bourke community members, and government and nongovernment agencies and service providers.

Within a framework of collaboration and a focus on action and accountability, clear strategies have been developed. They include comprehensive and coordinated support in the first 1,000 days of life, a wraparound support system for children at risk of disengaging from school or offending, and strategies targeted at increasing employment opportunities and reducing domestic violence. It is a trial and test approach, requiring a service system that is flexible and responsive in meeting the community’s needs. A shared measurement system and a community report card are being developed to track progress.

But it is not just about numbers. In every community conversation and in every meeting of the Bourke Tribal Council – whether the subject was early childhood, school-age children or the role of men – the same theme kept recurring: a core component of each strategy had to address issues of grief and loss, and reconnecting to culture and country. That in turn would provide the foundation for a sense of agency and belonging, and for strong self-governance.

It is still early days but what we see now in Bourke is a consensus that “business as usual” isn’t good enough, and a shared sense of urgency around the change that needs to happen. Representatives across all agencies are sitting at the table to support a data-informed strategy developed and led by the Aboriginal community.

What is critical in terms of continued progress is that the work is authorised and supported by the relevant government and nongovernment agencies. To that end a cross-sector leadership group has been formed, made up of senior government representatives and tasked with supporting and facilitating work on the ground.

Over the next two years a business case is being developed to calculate the savings that can be created as a result of reducing offending and incarceration rates, as well as other state-wide legislative and policy measures. The crux of justice reinvestment is that these savings must be ploughed back into the community to support the ongoing change process.

State and federal governments need to listen to, be guided by and work in genuine partnership with communities such as Bourke to incentivise these local initiatives that address the drivers of crime and open up new life pathways. Then we can really start talking about success.

Alistair Ferguson is the executive director of Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project. Sarah Hopkins is the chair of Just Reinvest NSW and managing solicitor of justice projects at the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT


Alistair Ferguson and Sarah Hopkins

The GuardianTramp

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