The temperature has died down a bit recently, but one of the great themes of this state election has been ‘Law and Order’ ‘Crime’ and ‘African Gangs’.
When I was working as a Chaplain in the prison system, the mantra that used to be repeated was ‘There are no votes in Jails!’ Pentridge was terrible, and we kept on asking for better conditions, to no avail. When I was working there, the Victorian prison population was about 1500 people.
But then private money became involved in building and running jails. Now there was profit to be made. Is it any wonder that the prison population is now over 4,000 (up 70%from 2004)? It costs us 11,358.80 to keep a prisoner in jail (not counting the capital cost of building it)*
Did you know that privatised prison companies lobby governments to keep harsh drug laws in place and to be ‘tough on crime’ because their business model relies on people being locked up.**
The worst thing about private prisons is that they place the profit motive between us and those who offend us. More, they put distance, and less accountability between us and them.
The way it used to be was this: Those who offend us should be punished. We decide what an ‘offence’ is, by means of our elected representatives. We hand over that job to them. As well, we hand over the power of locking people up or not to the judges. We also hand over the power to use force to the police.
So we are not allowed to ‘take the law into our own hands’ because as a community, we have handed over these rights to those who act on our behalf, and on behalf of society as a whole.
This system has its limits, as the introduction of ‘victim impact statements’ has shown. When we hand over so much to others, we feel alienated from the system of justice that is operating on our behalf. We feel powerless.
This is different from the days of the stocks, or the pillory, where a person could come into direct contact with those whom they had offended, or where in severe cases, capital punishment was a very public affair.
The problem is that the prison system, while punishing, does not do much to help to reconcile those who have offended with the rest of us. The rate of recidivism is about 42.00% (this number of people are back in jail within two years of their release.)
The heart of the Christian gospel is that whatever happens, we are meant to be reconciled to one another, because Christ has made that possible. We, in our ‘Tough on Crime’ selves, are not much interested in reconciliation, but revenge.
But I know of some places where a different approach is working. The Justice Reinvest programme in Bourke is designed to use money that might otherwise have been spent on locking people up, on community development programmes. In fact, instead of looking for a ‘silver bullet’, they work on co-ordinating a myriad of small steps. *** Here is a summary of the results in Bourke between 2015 and 2017. Crime rates fell by:
18% for major offences
34% for non-domestic violence related assaults
39% for domestic violence related assaults
39% for drug offences
35% for driving offences. ****
The other form of restorative justice that I know about comes from the Koori court in Shepparton. Here, while the sentencing laws are the same, there is much more involvement of the Aboriginal elders in the process. Victims are present at a sentencing conference, as well as people whose job it is to support offenders. In order to participate, offenders must plead guilty.
The aim of the process is to restore the offender to his or her community, with appropriate support.
How I wish that these stories were told, instead of the ones that pander to our baser instincts.
It is an anticipation of the Reign of God in Christ when these projects are successful. It is the victory of love over profit, of love over individualism.
As we sang last Sunday
‘All praise to our redeeming Lord,
who joins us by his grace,
who bids us, each to each restored, together seek his face.