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Changing the dial to Catastrophic


The National Council for Fire and Emergency Services recently changed and standardised the ratings of fire danger through Australia. Once listed as Low, Moderate, High, Very High and Extreme, they are now labelled Moderate, High, Extreme and Catastrophic. Each level of risk commands a corresponding response. The highest level of Catastrophic recognises the reality of more severe fires. It also points to an increased awareness that in many areas Australia faces dangers with potentially cataclysmic consequences for the nation and people. These new dangers, however, can obscure the catastrophic nature of policies and situations that we have taken for granted.  

Contemplating catastrophe is not confined to assessing the risk of fire. Climate change is no longer a subject of debate but is experienced in life-threatening and changing fires, floods, heatwaves, rising sea levels, the cost of insurance and  the viability of housing estates. Its effects may also be catastrophic. The consequences of war are no longer seen to be confined to third world nations but are made present in Ukraine, in the increased readiness to consider the use of nuclear weapons, and in our relationships with China. In assessing the risk of war we must make space for the catastrophic, even the apocalyptic. 

At a more personal level, too, Australians have had to reckon with the threat of catastrophe through potentially life-threatening infectious disease and life-changing economic loss. The cost of renting and house ownership, too, means that many people must reckon with the possibility of homelessness as they cannot meet mortgage payments or afford rent.

All these potential catastrophes are real and rightly engage our attention. They can, however, obscure the catastrophic aspects of Australian life that are considered to be normal. Many are found in social policies affecting people who are disadvantaged. We have recently had the cancerous entrails of Robodebt dissected for us. Its catastrophic effects on people’s lives remained hidden because of the popular expectation that governments will provide services without raising taxes and because of the scornful contempt of the ‘successful’ for people who claim benefits.

A more deeply rooted example of unrecognised catastrophe lies in the criminal justice system. It deals with real needs in society but does so by embodying false premises that hurt both persons affected by it and society as a whole.

The central functions of a criminal justice system are to keep the community safe from violence and robbery, to hold people responsible for their actions, to distinguish tolerable from unacceptable behaviour, and to encourage those charged with criminal behaviour to live responsibly in society. It deals with broken relationships and looks to heal relationships. The need to protect the community from violence and robbery can justify holding people in custody, but this should be exceptional and seen not as punishment but as leading to a change of life. Deprivation of liberty is therapeutic and not punitive, as indeed are the diversionary programs that should form the ordinary response to criminal behaviour.


'For many of the catastrophes with which we must reckon, such as those from climate, war, fire and flood, we can blame others as well as ourselves. For other catastrophes, such as the failure of our criminal justice system, we have only our own prejudices and inattention to hold to account for such a spectacular own goal.' 


Judged by these standards the criminal justice system in Australia is a catastrophe both for the community and for the persons caught in it. Its operative business is punishment, its main targets are people already marginalised in society, its main process is incarceration, and its main result is further marginalisation and reoffending. In business terms the system is self-sustaining in recycling its raw material at a great human and financial cost borne by its stakeholders.

Underlying the enduring acceptance of such an expensive and counterproductive criminal justice system are deep-rooted popular attitudes that see punishment as the proper response to all wrongdoing, regard with suspicion such minority groups as Indigenous Australians, Muslims and African refugees, and fear that horrific or local anti-social behaviour will spread throughout the whole community. Politicians and media magnify popular fears for their own interests; governments respond by sweeping laws that impose a heavy cost on minority communities and individual members. This cost becomes evident when imprinted on the face of someone whose life has been destroyed by it. That leads to public pressure for change. 

The most recent example of this cycle began after James Gargasoulas ran down pedestrians on January 2017 in Melbourne’s Bourke Street, killing six people. He had been bailed for another offence shortly before and had taken drugs. The coroner later criticised severely the police handling of the incident. The Government responded to the killing by restricting access to bail by people charged with offences regardless of their severity. This led to a massive increase in the number of people held in jail in subsequent years and to harsher conditions in overcrowded prisons. The number of women in prison doubled and the number of Indigenous Australians also increased sharply.

The reality of the harm done by such imprisonment was revealed in the death of Veronica Nelson, an Indigenous woman, who had been denied bail for a trivial offence. Despite frequent appeals for help she was neglected by prison staff and died alone on the floor of her cell. The coroner later described the working of the bail laws as a complete and unmitigated disaster. The State Government has subsequently committed itself to change the legislation. Experience suggests, however, that these reforms last only until public anxiety is triggered by other incidents of destructive behaviour, and further destructive policies are enacted. Without a change in public attitudes to criminal justice the default position on the dial will always return to catastrophic. 

Change in public attitudes must be based in a realistic understanding of the effects of imprisonment on people. For both children and adults it increases the likelihood that they will again offend. That should not be surprising. Incarceration breaks people’s connection with family and friends, diminishes their self-respect, and puts on their shoulders all the prejudices of society about their religion, their poverty, their places of origin and the areas in which they live. The disproportionate number of Indigenous people in prison speaks for itself of the systematic prejudice in the Australian community. 

Imprisonment also makes prisoners unable to support themselves and their families. The stigma associated with it lessens their chance of finding employment and shelter when they leave jail. They find few encouraging role models or opportunities to learn new skills in overcrowded prisons and the admirably conceived strategies to help them reconnect with society are underfunded to meet their needs and to mend the gratuitous harm done by imprisonment.

The harm caused by imprisonment extends beyond the people detained to their families and to society as a whole. The children of imprisoned mothers and fathers suffer from anxiety and shame, as well as from the dislocation and uncertainty caused by losing one of their few supports. The huge increase of women in Victorian prisons is of particular concern. Most suffer from many forms of disadvantage, have children, and were remanded for non-violent offences. The consequences for themselves and others for their prison sentences are massive. It breaks their bonds with partners and children, damages their precarious self-confidence and self-esteem, ensures that they will return to a life of poverty, makes it far more likely that they will reoffend and again be jailed and puts their children at risk of offending and being jailed, and places incalculable future pressures on the welfare system.

In a low-scoring soccer game the closest thing to a catastrophe occurs when players kick the ball into their own net. For many of the catastrophes with which we must reckon, such as those from climate, war, fire and flood, we can blame others as well as ourselves. For other catastrophes, such as the failure of our criminal justice system, we have only our own prejudices and inattention to hold to account for such a spectacular own goal. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Fire Danger Status and bush fire ready sign (Getty Images).

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Catastrophe, Crisis



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Existing comments

This article seems to deal with two main issues: one is the issue of climate change; the other is socioeconomic inequity. I have little doubt the climate is changing and that we need to prepare for this. It is over 200 years since the First Fleet landed and we have been a society based on the British model since then. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Britain was a very unequal society. The situation in Ireland was particularly bad. So was that in the new industrial towns. Much of our social and economic thinking seems to be still based on assumptions to poverty and the Law from this era. The Scandinavian countries have a much better approach to these issues. We need to think outside our box.

Edward Fido | 16 March 2023  

Imprisonment has so many deleterious effects for those imprisoned and their un-imprisoned families and associates, that it defies understanding that some people are incapable of understanding that the best thing to do is to avoid imprisonment by adhering to the laws designed to make life and its living better for everyone. But then I was forgetting that for some people self comes first.

John Frawley | 17 March 2023  

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