A bird? A plane? No, it's social housing
21 November 2022 at 5:21 pm
Forget about imaginary superheroes, a targeted social housing program could reduce crime, recidivism and help vulnerable people avoid prison.
Social housing has a role to play in helping at-risk cohorts avoid prison, says the CEO of a reintegration service provider and advocacy organisation that works to break the recidivism cycle.
Ahead of this week’s bi-annual International Criminal Justice Conference, Vaughan Winther, CEO of Australian Community Support Organisation (ACSO), spoke to Pro Bono News about how social housing can be used to support at-risk cohorts and break the cycle of offending and ending up in prison.
And as Australia confronts the breadth of its housing crisis and stares down economic and social challenges in the wake of the pandemic, the role of social housing is critical, he said.
With a social worker background and having worked in the industry for 25 years, Winther said he had noticed a pattern: “the majority of people who go into custody or who end up incarcerated, all generally display similar indicators of what we call social vulnerability.”
This includes high rates of homelessness, poor education and employment outcomes, undiagnosed or untreated mental illness and substance abuse.
But he said that doesn’t match with common perceptions of who enters the prison system, with people assuming prisons are filled with outlaw bikie gangs or violent killers.
In fact, Winther said, “most people are committing low level crimes or nonviolent crimes”.
“And generally speaking… once people do go into prison, they’ve got high rates of recidivism, which means they return. We also know that generally their… offences get more serious the longer they spend time in prison.”
Preventing ‘endemic incarceration’
Prison is not the answer, he said. And although this data is not new, he said there appears to be a lack of political will to change it.
In Victoria, Winther said, the opposite has happened: in the wake of several horrific crimes in the state, including the murder of teenager Masa Vukotic, bail and parole laws were strengthened such that very few prisoners now get parole.
“What you have now in Victoria is about 50 per cent of the prison system is people who have not been found guilty yet,” Winther said.
But for those carrying out summary offences, addressing the challenges and issues they face could prevent recidivism, reducing the prison population and the amount spent on prisons by the government.
He said there was a choice to be made: waiting for people to become “endemically incarcerated”, or addressing the social and economic issues that led to summary offending in the first place through provision of social housing.
In Victoria, Winther said, those incarcerated on remand for lower level offending generally don’t spend long in prison. But this means they don’t get to access the full suite of rehabilitative programs, and support services for those leaving prison often don’t pick up everyone.
And those who leave prison now have a conviction to their name, and a criminal record, making finding work and housing even more difficult.
But an integrated system of social housing would prevent people from ending up in the justice system, Winther said, by providing a stable base and contact with targeted services.
“It requires investment, and it requires a more sophisticated approach around ensuring that the social housing program is focused on preventing that person from reoffending and preventing that person from actually being going back into custody,” he said.
According to ACSO, in 2019-20, the total cost per prisoner per day in Australia was up to $559. That equates to paying the average national weekly rent (as of December 2020) for 8 houses. The cost of sending one person to prison for a year could cover the capital costs of building a social housing dwelling, the organisation states.
Crafting a preventative social housing program would also mean a shift in mindset, from an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff approach to one that considers whether it’s in anyone’s best interests to allow people to reoffend and end up back in prison.
“Let’s actually invest and establish a supportive social housing program for those people coming out. Let’s make sure they get into a house, but not just a house… let’s actually make it a supporting program. Let’s actually engage them and sort of say, ‘we’re here to support you through your social issues, through drug use, through mental connection, family, trying to get you a job, all those things’,” Winther said.
He added that this “makes sense” not just from a social perspective, but from an economic perspective, in reducing the amount of funding being sunk into the prison system.
“The solution is not complex,” he added.
Winther said he hoped this week’s conference would “shine a light” on the issue and encourage action from governments.
“We’re not talking about serious violent offenders. People in the prison system are going in and out every six months, [or] four months, and with… problems that result in half of them coming back.
“It’s actually these sorts of… people who are causing so much cost from an economic point of view but also from a social point of view. The amount of disruption to their lives and disruption in relation to the economic cost is significant… and something needs to be done about it.”