As we move towards economic recovery, we must remember those for whom the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been especially acute. This includes people whose experiences of trauma and disadvantage have pushed them into contact with the law – people who have been characterised as ‘offenders’ when in fact they needed safety and support.
Women in the criminal justice system are some of the most vulnerable in the community, disproportionately impacted by poverty, homelessness, substance dependence and trauma. This is entrenched further for Aboriginal women by the legacies of colonisation.
It is sobering, then, that it is now 10 years since the UN adopted The Bangkok Rules, which highlighted the imperative for gender-specific and non-custodial responses for women. In a reversal of international trends, however, women’s incarceration rates have skyrocketed across Australia, particularly in Victoria, since that time.
Rather than being driven by an increase in women’s offending, this growth has occurred as a result of legislative settings which, though implemented in response to violent male offending, interact in damaging ways with women’s lives. Slated as measures to improve community safety, recent reforms restricting bail, parole and sentencing options have made already vulnerable women less safe and at greater risk of being taken into custody as a result.
Because women generally commit less serious offences, these systemic drivers mean that women experience short, repeated periods in custody that often replicate their prior experiences of violence, while disrupting supports and family connections along the way.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian states recognised the risk posed to people in custody, with closed environments and significant co-occurring health issues presenting a double threat.
Some jurisdictions opted for early release, some for more stringent restrictions on visitors, and some used legislative provisions to justify the granting of bail. This saw a temporary reduction in prison numbers.
Though more women received bail in Victoria during this time, they lived in the community with drastically reduced supports. Services that may have kept these women safe or out of contact with the criminal justice system were unavailable, or their waiting lists had extended to more than six months.
At the same time, increased policing during the pandemic – in particular, policing of public spaces – can have disproportionate impacts on those without a safe place to ‘stay at home’ or without the financial means to get around. While Victorians were assured that any person fleeing violence would be able to do so safely regardless of travel restrictions or curfews, few women who have experienced criminal justice system contact will wish to run the gauntlet of explaining their reasons for travelling to police.
Service providers that regularly attended prisons could no longer do so, while visits to family were cut off, with mothers expected to maintain contact with children, including infant children, via phone or video. This meant that opportunities for maintaining or re-establishing relationships were severely disrupted and will remain so for some time.
In some cases, the restrictions will have caused irreparable harm to the prospects of mothers and children re-uniting, particularly where statutory time limits on re-unification are imposed. This will have particularly damaging impacts for Aboriginal communities, already so devastated by historical and current rates of child removal. Equally, it will put additional pressure on statutory responses down the track, given that the pathway from out-of-home care to juvenile offending is already well documented.
The harms entrenched during this time, therefore, cannot be underestimated. Before prison numbers rise further, we need a new direction. Rather than making an exorbitant investment in building more prisons , as well as the resources that they require, we need to invest more in social supports. Housing and support services are much more economically sustainable and can prevent offending, but they are in short supply. This has seen women’s disadvantage used to justify custodial responses instead.
Policy must recognise that imprisoning people who commit low-level offences driven largely by poverty and trauma costs the whole community in a variety of ways now and in future generations. Ten years on from COVID-19 and 20 years on from the adoption of The Bangkok Rules we should look back on this time as a ‘decarceration moment’, the moment we realised that a more sustainable and humane approach to women’s offending would not only benefit women and their children, but also free up resources for the difficult recovery ahead.