Justice Reinvestment: forum helps community focus on finding better outcomes

Professor Mick Dodson, Cowra High School's who did the Acknowledgement of Country at the forum and Aboriginal and Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda.
Professor Mick Dodson, Cowra High School's who did the Acknowledgement of Country at the forum and Aboriginal and Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda.

Cowra is the site of exploratory research that is testing how Justice Reinvestment could be adopted as a possible policy approach.

The Cowra community, together with Australian National University researchers, held a very successful Justice Reinvestment Forum in Cowra last week.

The research is being led by ANU Research Fellow, Dr Jill Guthrie, who said the response from the community had been a positive one.

Cowra Shire Councillor Ruth Fagan and former Australian of the Year, Professor Mick Dodson, co-chaired the Forum which was attended by some 40 people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda also participated in the Forum.

"We have been working closely with organisations in the town such as the Neighbourhood Centre, Cowra Youth Council, the Police Citizens Youth Club, the schools, health services, Cowra Aboriginal Land Council, Headspace, the Mental Health Service, Cowra Aboriginal Land Council, Cowra Business Council and many others," Councillor Fagan said.

"The town has enthusiastically engaged with the research over the past two years," Dr Guthrie said.

The Forum was the culmination of two years engagement by the researchers with the town to develop some shared understandings of what Justice Reinvestment could look like if it was adopted as policy.

Justice Reinvestment aims to address the underlying causes of crime and improve the lives of both individuals and communities. It uses data to identify communities that have high concentrations of offenders and assess the particular problems facing those communities. The redirection of funds into early intervention, crime prevention and diversionary programs creates savings in the criminal justice system that can be reinvested into those communities. Justice Reinvestment has the ability to reduce crime, offer positive opportunities to young people and to save taxpayers' money.

Forum participants reflected on the money that had been spent on incarcerating their own citizens over the past ten years. They also deliberated on the crimes that could be amenable to a Justice Reinvestment approach. They then engaged in a process to decide how monies that had been spent on incarcerating Cowra citizens could be better spent on prevention, early intervention or other services within the community.

"As a community, we overwhelmingly felt that crimes such as traffic offences, public order offences, justice procedure offenders and drug offences, could be considered as amenable to a Justice Reinvestment approach," Cr Ruth Fagan said.

About $46 million had been spent on incarcerating Cowra citizens over the past ten years. Forum participants determined that about 50 per cent of this - some $23 million - had been spent during that time on incarcerating their citizens for crimes which would be amenable to a Justice Reinvestment approach, if such a policy was in place.

"When we take into consideration how much has been spent on citizens from our community over the past ten years to incarcerate them for these types of offences, we learnt that some $23 million has been spent on our behalf. Looked at another way, just in our community alone, that represents some $2.3 million per annum that could be reinvested into treatment, prevention and early intervention, if a Justice Reinvestment policy was in place," Cr Fagan said.

"It would be great if we could reinvest those monies in our community - into a Safe House, a Halfway House, a Homework Centre, skills training, housing the homeless - and similar positive initiatives that address the underlying causes of crime - rather than have our young people sent away to detention.

'The forum was an interesting and fitting public way of introducing us to the JR philosophy. It was also a great way for us all to see and hear the strengths and weaknesses in the provision of support services for those less able to cope in our community.

"The research project has focused the community on finding better outcomes.

"It made me realise, we don't need to change the world - just our little bit of it!"