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How to cut Australia's $48 billion crime bill

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Crime costs Australia almost A$48 billion per year. In anyone’s language, that is a public cost that needs to be addressed urgently. Fortunately, we now have an abundance of research findings that tell us how we can do that.

It is disappointing that there has not been any decrease in the use of expensive traditional crime control measures offered by formal justice systems. Governments continue to hire more police. Parliaments are directing courts to increase sentences. As a result, our prisons are being pushed to the limit.

At the same time, most crime is declining across the nation. Although it is tempting, we need to be careful not to overstate any connection between the fall in crime and punitive populism.

Formal criminal justice processes, necessary as they may be, are a blunt instrument in the fight against crime. Most processes are simply pushing today’s problems into the path of future generations.

Instead, communities are more likely to be crime-free if they are built on equality of opportunity and strong social capital. For these reasons, policymakers should develop, adopt or expand the following programs and initiatives. The cost of these investments pales into insignificance when compared with the cost of crime now and into the future.

In our correctional policies, we need to inject life back into prison-based rehabilitation programs. This would improve accommodation support and employment opportunities for ex-prisoners, and ameliorate the debilitating effect that mental ill health has on the ability of ex-prisoners, especially Aboriginal offenders, to rejoin society successfully.

To stem the flow of new offenders, we must continue to fund diversionary schemes designed to keep young people out of court. This means supporting the work of restorative justice practitioners. We should applaud the reinstatement of the Queensland drug court that fell out of favour with the Newman government in 2012. The place of specialist courts in the Australian justice framework must be consolidated.

Police training is crucial to crime prevention. All training must reinforce the importance of respect for the communities the officers serve. All police, not just recruits, need extra training to prevent and respond to family violence. Ideally, there would be dedicated officers in every police station assessed as needing such specialised support.

In addition, governments must adequately fund women’s safety services that help women wanting to leave abusive relationships to find crisis accommodation and counselling for them and their children.

Indigenous over-representation in the justice system is a national disgrace. Governments must commit to extra funds for schemes that mentor Aboriginal young people, in partnership with Indigenous communities, to enhance their life skills and prospects of employment. There must be an emphasis on children of Indigenous prisoners, too. Indigenous courts, Indigenous-run justice centres and night patrols must continue to be supported.

Governments must lift their funding of community-based strategies that work to enhance the social and mental health of Australian children. This includes programs and practices that have been shown to be effective in reducing child abuse and neglect. The link between abuse and neglect, and the drug and alcohol use of their caregivers, is undeniable and has been known for decades. Programs that deal with these issues, and with the mental illnesses that are often linked to drug and alcohol abuse, are crucial for crime prevention.

We also need to be vigilant in funding research not only to evaluate the cost-effectiveness and durability of the above strategies and commitments, but to prepare for “future crime”: that is, crime for which we are largely unprepared, including cybercrime.

The research evidence is clear: with appropriate resources directed at health, housing and capacity-building, we can reduce crime in Australia without the need to expand our prisons, add to police numbers, or increase penalties for those who break the law. The status quo is unsustainable, and we have the evidence that can challenge it. It is time we used it.

The ConversationRick Sarre currently receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Criminology Research Council. He is a member of State Council of the Australian Labor Party (SA).

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