Following last week’s Women’s Safety Summit, CEDA Economist Ember Corpuz says that we cannot address women’s safety in earnest without a plan to reduce the rapidly increasing number of women in prison.
This year’s Women’s Safety Summit convened survivors, advocates and experts to shape a national plan to reduce violence against women and children. As a nation, we cannot talk about women’s safety in earnest without a concrete plan to reverse the rapidly increasing rate at which we are incarcerating women. Rather than protecting women and their children, imprisonment is creating further barriers to women actively participating in safe communities and contributing to a dynamic economy.
Prison populations overall are growing at a staggering rate. While men are still imprisoned at a higher rate than women, the rate of imprisonment is increasing faster for women – growing 64 per cent over the last decade.
But the trends behind this number are even more concerning. Women are being sentenced to custody for comparatively minor offenses such as drug use or robbery, which mostly stem from entrenched disadvantage. Moreover, a significant number of female prisoners suffer from physical and psychological ill-health, and are often victims of abuse and domestic violence.
The trends are more alarming for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, who were 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous women. Many of these women are already disadvantaged with intergenerational trauma, have been in state care or the justice system at an earlier age, and are the subject of more significant police monitoring for low-risk offending.
Detaining women in custody for relatively minor offences keeps them cycling through the criminal justice system, a poor and damaging substitute for adequate social support. Courts are likely to send a person into custody if the person has already been in prison before, creating a vicious cycle of disadvantage and intergenerational offending.
A considerable number of women who flee their homes due to domestic abuse find themselves in temporary or emergency housing. Most have part-time or casual levels of employment and as such, are unable to secure stable housing, which soon drives them to homelessness. This can drive them to engage in activities that lead them back to prison.
The detrimental impacts don’t begin and end with women. Sentencing primary carers to custody also affects children’s development and mental health.
Preventing the cycle of violence and offending requires an integrated and robust social support system that includes mental-health support, social housing and a trauma-informed approach to criminal justice. It is critical this system is in place while also diverting more women from ending up in prison in the first place. If we must take women into custody, we need to ensure we are able to provide support through the entire process – before sentencing, in custody and post-release.
The drivers of increasing rates of incarceration are complex but there is no doubt that governments’ tough-on-crime policies in response to community attitudes have had unintended consequences. For example, changes to the Victorian Government’s Bail Act 1977 that took effect in 2018 have made it more difficult for vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals to access bail and parole.
A considerable number of women and children do not receive custodial sentences but remain on remand because they were refused bail. When their matter gets to court, even when they are eventually convicted, they receive a time served decision. Even prior to the introduction of the amended Bail Act 1977, Corrections Victoria revealed that in 2017, “overall only 17 per cent of women who were initially remanded and then bailed were sentenced to a term of imprisonment longer than the time they had already served on remand.”
While this may seem like a relatively harmless outcome, experiences in the remand centre can cut a person’s connection to support, housing, employment services and their children. But to what end? Women are more vulnerable when isolated from their community and are more likely to re-offend. It’s also harder for those who have been released on time served to be given parole. This is an essential check that can ensure they are supported and supervised. This will give them a better chance of successful reintegration, as opposed to releasing them directly into homelessness, addiction and unsafe relationships, which increases the likelihood of re-offending.
To keep our community safe, we need to ensure that vulnerable women have access to critical supports and a justice system that seeks to rehabilitate, not just incarcerate. Most social justice problems require complex solutions, and this is no exception. Failing to try new approaches will only reinforce community perceptions that governments are not taking women’s safety seriously enough.