Why was this government policy?
George Brandis sensibly reversed his planned cuts to legal services yesterday, but he didn’t explain why it was Coalition policy for 18 months
On the eve of the 2013 election, the Coalition announced that it would be cutting $43 million from Indigenous legal services across the country. Unlike many of its later cuts (to health, education and public broadcasting), these were known when Australians voted on 7 September. Like many of those other cuts, they were abominably short-sighted. Any competent economic analysis of the justice system would conclude that the savings to be made are in reducing the skyrocketing rates of imprisonment, which are now at the highest level since the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps counterintuitively, those savings can be effected by investing properly in “at risk” communities and young people well before they start breaking the law, most often during adolescence.
Prison is an extraordinarily expensive method of social control. And while it does benefit society by containing criminal behaviour during the time a person is incarcerated, in general it doesn’t rehabilitate and it doesn’t deter. On the contrary: spending time in prison actually makes a person slightly more likely to reoffend. And because imprisonment overwhelmingly targets already disadvantaged populations, it has a devastating effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. Indigenous people are up to 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people.
For the last year and a half, legal aid commissions and legal services across Australia have been bracing for funding cuts whose only effect would have been to further increase rates of imprisonment and also, perversely, the budget deficit. In December 2013, the government confirmed that the cuts would amount to $42 million over four years, but would cover non-Indigenous services as well. George Brandis’ last-minute backflip yesterday afternoon – just before legal services were due to begin cutting staff and frontline services – is to be welcomed, but one wonders how the cuts were ever justified in the first place, and for so long. The legal services backflip joins five other policy “barnacles” knocked off since February’s failed leadership spill, two of which – the Medicare co-payment and funding cuts to homeless services – were also likely to have increased the deficit while entrenching existing disadvantage.
I should add a disclaimer: I worked for the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service as a defence lawyer until a year ago – that experience informed my book, Crime & Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System, which is available now. And with that shameless plug, I must also add that this is my last editorial for The Monthly Today before I begin a new role. From Monday next week, Sean Kelly – former adviser to both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – will take over the reins. Thanks to readers for your interest and your correspondence – it’s been fun, and you’re in excellent hands with Sean.
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Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015).
On the eve of the 2013 election, the Coalition announced that it would be cutting $43 million from Indigenous legal services across the country. Unlike many of its later cuts (to health, education and public broadcasting), these were known when Australians voted on 7 September. Like many of those other cuts, they were abominably short-sighted. Any competent economic analysis of the justice system would conclude that the savings to be made are in reducing the skyrocketing rates of imprisonment, which are now at the highest level since the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps counterintuitively, those savings can be effected by...