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Combating crime by restoring relationships

  • 26 July 2019
When devising policies for people on the margins of society — people in the justice system, Indigenous people, refugees and unemployed for example — Australian governments seem always to settle on measures that are punitive and counterproductive. Memories of Port Arthur, the poorhouse and the hulks seem to exercise an abiding fascination. Certainly, the way we imagine the world has a strong influence on policy.

In the popular premises that influence penal policy in most Australian states, the value of human beings and their acceptance into society is conditional on good behaviour. People are individuals responsible for their own lives. They are not set within a network of relationships. The natural response to bad behaviour is, therefore, to exclude them and so protect society. Society, in turn, has no responsibility to them.

This view stands in contrast with the way of imagining the world adopted by most humanitarians, as is caught in the insights enshrined in Catholic Social Teaching. It sees each human being as precious with an inalienable dignity independent of intelligence, wealth or good behaviour. Human beings, too, depend on one another for life and wellbeing and so are responsible to each other. The good of each depends on a shared commitment to the good of all. Finally, society has a particular responsibility to people who are isolated and disadvantaged.

This suggests that, although imprisonment has a place in penal policy as a last resort to protect the community, the focus should be on the persons who perpetrate crime and on those who are damaged by it. Penal policy, like all policy, is ultimately about ensuring just relationships.

Although government rhetoric and initiatives sometimes make reference to rehabilitation, in the face of public anxiety about crime politicians usually emphasise retribution through prison sentences. The policy is destructive both to the people caught in it and to society.

People commit crimes because their connections with society are weak. They have often received no respect and are unable to give it. Isolation from families and society in prisons intensifies their disconnection, and explains why so many reoffend on leaving jail. The emphasis on imprisonment injures society because it leads to antisocial behaviour and diverts resources that could have been dedicated to community health and education to profit the wealthy companies that run prisons.

In imagining a response to crime, the first step is to see both those who commit crime and those hurt by it as