A new issues paper released today from RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice highlights the growing number of women in Victoria’s justice system and provides pathways to solve this complex problem.
Experts from the Centre for Innovative Justice said that a justice reinvestment strategy for women could help Victoria to reverse the rising rate of female incarceration, and meet its international obligations.
Catering more effectively for women’s needs can also stem the harm caused to individual women, their children and communities.
Women make up a small (around 7%) but rapidly growing group within Victoria’s prison population, which stood at around 7,150 at June 2020.
The number of women received into Victorian prisons in 2019/20 increased by over 1,000 or close to 174% in the decade to June 2020, compared with an 109% increase in male receptions over the same period.
Data also shows the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women being incarcerated is growing faster than any other group. There was a 321% increase in Aboriginal women entering prison in the ten years to June 2020.
Previous experience as victims of crime, trauma, physical and mental ill-health and lack of safe and secure housing are known drivers behind women’s contact with the justice system overall, while Victoria is experiencing particular systemic drivers which are accelerating this contact.
The paper – Leaving custody behind: Foundations for safer communities and gender-informed criminal justice systems – proposes five foundations as the groundwork for change and details 17 opportunities to change the story about women and the justice system. These include:
- Setting targets for reducing the female prison population.
- Investing in trauma-informed programs and services tailored for women in and at risk of entering the justice system. This would include piloting community-based support hubs independent of courts and correctional services.
- Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to a more internationally acceptable level and developing alternatives for young offenders so that fewer girls graduate to adult prisons.
- Changing policing practices and developing programs so that women and others are not propelled into custody for low-level offending.
- Expanding sentencing options by increasing opportunities for courts to impose community-based sanctions and removing custodial sentencing options for low level offending.
Campbell said that most women charged with crimes needed support, rather than incarceration.
“In Victoria, imprisoning women no longer appears to be used as a measure of last resort,” she said.
“Instead, prisons are increasingly functioning as a substitute for the social and community support that women − many of whom are caring for children − need to overcome histories of trauma and acute disadvantage.
“Research indicates that exposure to trauma is nearly universal among women in prison, with an estimated 77% to 90% having experience of family violence, childhood sexual abuse or both.
“Aboriginal women in contact with the criminal justice system are grappling with the additional impacts of dispossession, including intergenerational trauma.
“Almost 50% of women in custody in Victoria are there on remand. That means that they have not yet been convicted of the offence for which they have been charged.
“Where women are convicted and sentenced, they have often been on remand for so long that they are then sentenced to ‘time served’ and released from custody.
“During that period, however, women have had limited access to services while their connections to children and community supports have been severed.
“This means that the experience of custody is profoundly damaging and makes it more likely that they will reoffend – hardly the result that the community would expect.”
The paper will be launched via a virtual event attended by Minister for Corrections, Crime Prevention, Youth Justice and Victim Support, Natalie Hutchins.
The event will also feature a panel discussion with:
- Change the Record and Djirra CEO, Antoinette Braybrook.
- Law and Advocacy Centre for Women, CEO Elena Pappas.
- Justice Reform Initiative Executive Director, Dr Mindy Sotiri.
- Executive Officer of Flat Out, Elisa Buggy.
- CIJ advisor Dorothy Armstrong, who will share her lived experience of contact with the criminal justice system.
Campbell said investing early and in a whole-of-government way was essential.
“Developing specific justice responses for women would minimise the disproportionate harm, or double punishment, which women currently experience in the criminal justice system,” she said.
“Governments can find it tough to know where to start to solve this complex and growing challenge.
“We hope this issues paper lays the foundation for reform and shows how it can and should be done in a holistic way that keeps the community safe, supports women and their children and reduces broader harm.”