Justice reinvestment: Key to reducing Indigenous incarceration

6th Jun 2019

Crime rates are dropping, but rates of imprisonment – particularly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – are sky-rocketing. A new approach is needed.

The Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice report tabled in April 2018 is the most recent in a long line to address the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison, and not the first to point to justice reinvestment as a solution.

Almost ten years ago, in my role as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I first promoted the concept of justice reinvestment. At that time, the idea was already gaining popularity in the US. Today, 31 states in the US have reformed their corrections and sentencing policies to reprioritise taxpayer dollars. Eight prisons have closed in Texas in the past six years.

Savings generated by reducing imprisonment go towards alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders that are effective in reducing reoffending. Crime rates have continued their downward trend and billions of dollars are expected to be saved.

Crime rates in Australia are decreasing too – but imprisonment is increasing. In NSW, between 2011 and 2015, the number of crimes decreased in the majority of crime categories while the adult prison population increased by approximately 30 per cent. During the same period in NSW, arrests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for violent offences dropped by 37 per cent, and for property crime by 33 per cent, while the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rose by 40 per cent.

There’s a reason why justice reinvestment has gained support across the US, the UK and now Australia. And the reason is – it’s common sense. The ongoing and increasing expenditure of public resources on imprisonment for low-level offenders is a bad investment in social, health and economic terms. Returning low-level offenders from prison to socially and economically disadvantaged communities where there is inadequate housing, low levels of participation in schooling, few training or employment opportunities and limited or no drug and alcohol rehabilitation services doesn’t make sense. We are setting people – and communities – up to fail.

What does make sense is reprioritising where our money is spent. It needs to be moved away from building new prisons and into early intervention and crime prevention programs to reduce the number of people being locked up in the first place.

What also makes sense is reprioritising spending to invest in the services needed in communities with high rates of offending, so that offending decreases and, as a result, public safety increases.

This is the public policy challenge facing our governments and communities: churning large numbers of people through our prisons (and the criminal justice system as a whole) and back into the community actually decreases public safety and amenity.

Locking people up may look like the solution but it simply generates further disadvantage, inequality and public disorder. In fact, statistics indicate that more than half of the prisoners released are back inside prison within two years of release.

There is an urgent need to try evidence-informed and innovative approaches to reduce Indigenous incarceration which incorporate the elements we know are critical to success.

We know that initiatives aimed at creating long-term positive change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must be community-led. We know that data is essential for identifying the causes of offending and for monitoring the effectiveness of programs to reduce offending. And we know that some communities produce higher numbers of offenders than others and that the availability of services and supports in communities will impact on offending rates, so focusing on the ‘place’ is important.

Justice reinvestment not only makes sense financially, it also incorporates these elements – it’s community-led, data-driven and place-based. 

The Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project in Bourke is the most advanced justice reinvestment initiative in Australia. In November 2018, KPMG released an Impact Assessment of Maranguka Justice Reinvestment. The report looked at the changes that took place in Bourke between 2016 and 2017 and calculated the savings generated in 2017 by the collaborative efforts in Bourke at $3.1 million – two-thirds in justice savings and one-third broader economic impact to the region.

Just Reinvest NSW and Maranguka are now working with NSW Justice and Treasury to develop a more rigorous, longer-term approach to economic modelling over the next phase of the initiative.

Other communities and governments across the country in the early stages of similar projects include Port Adelaide, the ACT, Katherine and Cherbourg.

Funding and support for community-led justice reinvestment is needed along with a national body to support these important initiatives and to drive the implementation of justice reinvestment policies as proposed by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

The time for multi-partisan support for justice reinvestment is now.


‘Justice reinvestment key to reducing Indigenous incarceration’ by Tom Calma was first published in New Matilda on 6 April 2018, and was reproduced in the Jul/Aug 2018 edition of Precedent on prisons and detention centres. This updated version of the article has been published with permission.

Professor Tom Calma AO is an Aboriginal Elder from the Kungarakan tribal group and a member of the Iwaidja tribal group. He was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner from 2004–2010 and Race Discrimination Commissioner from 2004–2009. He is a Champion of Just Reinvest NSW and was a member of the Advisory Committee of the ALRC’s Inquiry into the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

Learn about how you can get involved and contribute an article

Tags: Access to justice Criminal justice Criminal law Tom Calma Justice reinvestment Incarceration Community Indigenous justice