Inside Story

How I would spend $100 million to reduce crime

Australian and international research can help us distinguish between successful and unsuccessful initiatives

Rick Sarre 8 August 2018 1628 words

Politicised problem-solving: the Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law precinct in Brisbane, home of the Queensland Drug and Alcohol Court, which was closed down by premier Campbell Newman and reopened by premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. Darren England/AAP Image

For decades now, researchers have been asking three key questions about crime: “What is working to reduce crime?” “What could work better?” and “What haven’t we tried, but could?” The research that’s come out of the quest for answers shows that the best programs, properly resourced, can stem the flow of potential offenders (and reoffenders) into the justice system. Here, I want to invest an imaginary $100 million in a way that the evidence tells us will deliver the greatest possible reduction in crime in Australia.

I can do this with reasonable confidence because we have enough information to show what generally works — and what should be the focus of policy-makers’ attention and funds — and what doesn’t. We know this because of research like the ground-breaking University of Maryland report, Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising, and because of work by the Campbell Collaboration and the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, and because of initiatives like the Crime Reduction Toolkit and the EMMIE framework. Here’s my list.

Pre- and post-release programs and prisoner rehabilitation: Good programs and well-trained program staff are already operating in rehabilitative settings in Australian prisons, but they remain underfunded. Five million dollars should be spent injecting life back into Australian prison-based rehabilitative programs.

The research shows that post-release services are highly beneficial in lowering the likelihood that released prisoners will reoffend, especially where there has been exposure to therapeutic communities prior to release. A further $5 million should be spent on improving accommodation support and employment opportunities for ex-prisoners, with an emphasis on chronic offenders.

Research also tells us that prisoners experience high rates of mental illness and cognitive disability (acquired brain injury and foetal alcohol syndrome, for instance). Five million dollars should be spent implementing programs designed to help prisoners with these debilitating illnesses to rejoin society.

Diversionary and therapeutic models of justice delivery: Numerous studies have found high levels of victim satisfaction with family conferencing. The research has concluded that such diversionary programs work at least as well as court-based responses at no more cost, though some have found that reoffending rates are lower when conferences are used as a supplement to conventional justice rather than as a substitute. Five million dollars would be spent reinforcing existing diversionary programs in each Australian jurisdiction, including shoring up the delivery of family conferencing.

Allied to diversionary and restorative practices is a concept known as “therapeutic justice.” The research tells us that problem-solving courts — including drug courts, Indigenous courts, mental health courts and family violence courts — can have a therapeutic effect on those who appear before them, even if the evidence of lower recidivism rates in Indigenous courts remains scant. Considering that therapeutic and restorative programs very easily become casualties of governments keen to tout their “law and order” credentials, $5 million should be spent reinforcing existing problem-solving courts and helping reinstate courts of this kind (for example, the drug and alcohol court in Queensland, abolished by Campbell Newman’s Liberal National government, reinstated by Annastacia Palaszczuk) that have been closed down for purely political reasons.

Programs to improve policing: Legitimacy theory tells us that people are more likely to obey the law if they believe that police are strictly adhering to the rules. Its testing is now well under way in Australia, too, and the results are similar to those discussed above. Procedural justice can also make an important contribution to victims’ satisfaction with the criminal justice system. Police practices that draw on this research should be taught in police academies, and so $5 million should be set aside for curriculum development, training and implementation of legitimacy practices. This training should not be reserved only for recruits, but should also be provided at all levels of policing.

Crime-prevention partnerships between government and the private sector: Supporters of crime prevention have been devoting a great deal of attention to the international trend to policing partnerships with private security operatives and private personnel generally. Citizens moving around the community are far more likely to be directed, challenged or searched by a security officer than by police. Moreover, international research has found that privately funded security directly contributes to significant reductions in crime. One example is the fight against cyber-crime.

The United Nations supports improved regulation of the security industry to support more professional policing partnerships, and has made detailed recommendations in Making Them Work, its crime-prevention handbook.

Governments should invite and reward (by making $10 million available) funding applications that bring together and encourage public and private initiatives that have been shown to reduce crime. A proportion of this money should be set aside to encourage further work in the prevention of what is loosely termed “future crime” — phenomena for which we are largely unprepared, including mass migration as a result of climate change.

Indigenous community justice initiatives: Seven million dollars should be set aside for the education (primary, secondary and tertiary) and mentoring of Aboriginal young people, in partnership with Indigenous communities, to enhance their life skills, work skills and, in the process, prospects of employment. Children of Indigenous prisoners should be given particular support. Strategies that could be reinforced and mirrored have been outlined in the recent Productivity Commission report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage.

Aboriginal courts made their first appearance in Australia two decades ago. People on bail on bail are more likely to attend hearings if they are held in these courts and less likely to be ordered to serve custodial remands. Their success, especially as a means of addressing the underlying problems associated with Indigenous offending, is undeniable.

Three million dollars should be devoted to facilitating Indigenous courts and Indigenous-run justice centres and night patrols, with an additional focus on treating those affected by drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illnesses.

Programs for victims of domestic violence: Services around Australia assist women who wish to leave violent relationships to put in place protection orders, arrange crisis accommodation, undertake counselling, and receive legal advice. Five million dollars should be allocated to assist them in their work. Another $5 million should be allocated to family violence units, with dedicated officers in every police station in Australia where an assessment has been made that such support is necessary.

Training in the fight against family violence should be given not only to new police recruits, but also across all ranks, and should be given in specific modules rather than in generic online training modules that police complete when they find the time. An injection of $5 million should be made to enable this to happen.

Programs that intervene at crucial transition points in young people’s lives: The Christchurch Health and Development Study, a thirty-five-year study of 1265 children born in the Christchurch region in the mid 1970s, reveals much about the importance for crime prevention of proper social and psychological development of children. Developmental criminology and life-course criminology studies have set out strategies for policy-makers that draw on this research, emphasising that the key is early intervention. Ten million dollars should be set aside to fund community-based strategies, informed by high-quality research, that enhance the social and mental health of Australian children, with a commitment to evaluating each step of the way.

Programs designed to prevent child neglect and abuse: A randomised trial conducted a decade ago in the United States monitored the progress of children born to mothers with low psychological resources living in highly disadvantaged settings. One group of children received specialist services by nurses; by the age of twelve, they were less likely to engage in substance abuse or suffer mental health problems, and their academic achievement was higher than that of other children in the study. A follow-up study concluded that the program was a promising means of reducing all-cause mortality among mothers and preventable-cause mortality of their first-born children.

Eighteen million dollars should be spent on programs and practices that have been shown to be effective in reducing the levels of child abuse and neglect in Australia.

Abuse, neglect and family violence are significantly associated with the alcohol and drug dependence of children’s caregivers, which suggests that there would be great value in implementing programs designed to limit the availability of cheap packaged wine and placing restrictions on the number of alcohol licences permitted in selected neighbourhoods. We also know that what reduces drug-related harm in the community is a focus on support, on keeping people alive, and on access to treatment, not fear campaigns and criminal justice responses. Two million dollars should be set aside for further pilot programs to test the policy implications of this research finding.

Public education: Two million dollars should go into public education programs designed to convince Australians that these evidence-based priorities will keep them safer than would simply injecting (or siphoning) the same amount of money into formal justice processes. Publicly funded advertising is crucial; people will only support these options — rather than “more of the same but harsher” — if the evidence is presented persuasively.

Evaluation: A final $3 million should be given to research teams to measure the costs and benefits of this expenditure, and to keep abreast of emerging research findings. Should another $100 million injection of funds be made in the following year? Should priorities be shifted, and, if so, into what programs and initiatives? This process should include training policy-makers to sift good research from poor research, and to implement programs in accordance with reliable findings.

Decades of valuable criminological research have shown how we can create more secure communities and reduce crime and the fear of crime. But it can only happen if we recognise our successes, acknowledge our limitations, clearly and succinctly communicate our findings, and continue to develop our evaluative capacity. Accompanied by sufficient political will, these budgetary allocations would drive down crime rates in Australia. ●