Prisons Failing, Warn Judges

30 Mar, 2013

The prison system is failing society by making young offenders more anti-social and increasingly likely to commit violent crimes after their release, the head of the Victorian Court of Appeal has warned.

Calls made four decades ago to reform the system and encourage rehabilitation had not been heeded, three judges said after hearing an appeal against the sentence of a youth with a long history of violence, who had been in and out of the juvenile justice system when he committed an unprovoked knife attack in 2011.

”The community would still ask today why the prison system has to be so antisocial in operation, why it cannot be improved so that people for whom there is a prospect of reformation are given a real opportunity for self-improvement,” said Court of Appeal president Chris Maxwell and Justices Marcia Neave and Stephen Kaye. ”Time and again courts are told that correctional authorities are simply not adequately resourced to provide the sorts of facilities which are essential if those in prison – many of whom have very serious psychological and behavioural problems – are to be meaningfully rehabilitated and assisted so that, when they are released, they will have some real prospect of reintegration into the community.”

In 1975, ACT Supreme Court judge Russell Fox said it was a distinct possibility that a person jailed would ”come out more vicious, and distinctly more antisocial in thoughts and deed, than when he went in”.

Justice Fox asked why the system could not be changed so that people ”for whom there is a prospect of reformation, and who are not so dangerous that they have to be kept in strict confinement, are given a real opportunity for self-improvement.”

In their judgment handed down this month, Justices Maxwell, Neave and Kaye said there was no reason to believe the concerns raised by Justice Fox had been rectified.

Justice Fox said that locking up people, particularly young offenders, could be detrimental to their prospects of reintegration. Their personality could also be ”permanently impaired”, with a substantial minority of people who served medium or long jail sentences likely to re-offend.

”Prisoners are kept in unnatural, isolated conditions, their every activity is so strictly regulated and supervised that they have no opportunity to develop a sense of individual responsibility,” he said.

”They are deprived of any real opportunity to learn to live as members of society, their only companions are other criminals, some of whom are bound to be quite vicious, their sex life must be unnatural, scope for psychiatric treatment is very limited, if not non-existent, and employment is limited and stereotyped.”

After reiterating Justice Fox’s concerns, the Appeal Court judges noted that all rehabilitative opportunities available in the youth justice system had been exhausted on the boy at the centre of the appeal before them.

They were told that, following a troubled upbringing, his criminal offending had led to several good behaviour bonds, probation orders, youth supervision orders in addition to being detained in youth justice custody multiple times.

He was sentenced last year in the County Court to four years’ jail with a two-year non-parole period over the knife attack, which left his intellectually disabled victim with life-threatening and long-term injuries.

For various reasons, including the youth’s propensity for violence – and considering he was two months short of turning 18 at the time of the knife attack – he was ordered to serve his sentence in adult prison, which the sentencing judge had hoped would be spent in a youth unit. But because of antagonisms between himself and other prisoners, the appeal judges heard that he had since been placed in protection and was largely isolated.

After the Director of Public Prosecution successfully appealed against his sentence on the basis it was inadequate given all of the relevant circumstances, the youth’s sentence was increased to a six-year maximum with a 3½-year non-parole period.

The appeal judges said more needed to be done to help the youth ”develop self-esteem, impulse control and some sense of optimism for the future, opportunities which – through no fault of his own – his childhood and upbringing completely denied him”.

They said that while there had been considerable effort to address the issues Justice Fox raised in 1975, there was ”no reason to believe that in 2013 the adult prison system has changed sufficiently to remove these concerns”.

Read more: The Age

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