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Tackling wealth inequality through justice reinvestment



Earlier this year, Australia was rated by wealth research firm New World Wealth as the top destination for millionaire migrants in 2016, for the second year in a row. The number increased to 11,000, from 8000 in 2015.

Lady Justice gazes favourably upon restorative justice model. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonThe popularity of Australia as a destination for the rich is a vector of the country's structural preference for the very wealthy. To be sure, as the Evatt Foundation reported last year, the share of Australia's household wealth owned by the richest 20 per cent has increased by at least 1.3 per cent since 2012 — a rise that comprises more than the entire share of the nation's wealth owned by the poorest households.

The top one per cent of household wealth in Australia is moving towards being 20 per cent of total wealth, while, as their Wealth of the Nation report put it, 'at the other end of the range, the poorest 40 per cent of households have virtually no share in the nation's wealth' and 'the bottom 20 per cent have negative net worth'. Further, 'for 40 per cent of households, inequality is increasing absolutely'.

This inequality twists around other social categories of disadvantage, including race, gender, sexuality and disability. Within this, there are few markers of social inequality as stark as incarceration rates. The latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveal high correlations between prison entrance and indicators of entrenched poverty and discrimination.

These include school completion (two in three prison entrants have not studied past year 10 and only 16 per cent have completed Year 12), unemployment (one in two prison entrants were unemployed in the 30 days before prison entry), and poor physical health (one in three prison entrants have a chronic health condition and one in three had a long-term health condition or disability).

Most shocking is the rate of Indigenous incarceration, which has gotten worse in recent years, with Indigenous people making up 27 per cent of the national prison population despite comprising only about three per cent of the overall population. Indigenous people are among the poorest people in Australia, with a poverty rate of 19.3 per cent.

If we want our system for justice to amount to something better than a mirror of our inability to distribute wealth and opportunity evenly, we need to address the undeniable role wealth inequality has in putting people in prison. Within this we need to explore alternatives to imprisonment. As abolitionists from Angela Davis to Australia's Deb Kilroy have pointed out, imprisonment is an extremely blunt object for pursuing both societal justice and criminal rehabilitation.

Alternatives do exist. A notable one is a concept known as justice reinvestment. It is founded on the idea that it is better to spend government money on community programs that prevent crime than on prisons. In the New South Wales country town of Bourke, community members have developed a comprehensive series of measures and alternative responses to imprisonment that are likely to save state funds earmarked for jailhouses, which can in turn be put back into the community to fund the successful programs. Some of the measures undertaken in Bourke include conferencing between young people and elders, and having community members call a team of elders instead of the police when confronted with crimes like petty theft and assault.

In such a way, justice reinvestment targets the problem of imprisonment at the root cause of wealth inequality by redirecting money at more generative responses to crime. It's ideas like this that will bring true prosperity to Australia, not the influx of millionaires.


Ann DeslandesAnn Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.

Topic tags: Ann Deslandes, criminal justice, restorative justice



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Existing comments

Some years ago work for the dole was introduced as a pilot in 5 Aboriginal communities with remarkable reduction in alcoholism, domestic violence and crime. The work for which the dole recipients were paid was general community work involving cleaning up the settlements, repairing and painting housing etc under skilled supervision. The Aboriginal communities welcomed it and many such as Noel Pearson supported its general application to the indigenous people. The do-gooders and unionists soon guaranteed that it didn't become general policy. Work for benefits for the able bodied would represent quite an investment if it were introduced across the board. The Whitlam government introduced such a scheme very early on in its first term but it died for some reason or other. Immigrant millionaires will, as you say make no difference, but neither will anything else unless we change to whole new system of benefit funding . Clearly what we currently do has failed miserably to make any improvements.

john frawley | 03 April 2017  

Where, I wonder, are these amazing numbers of wealthy immigrants coming from? It's hard to imagine that they're bringing admirable or desirable social or ethical traits with them. What influence are their wealth and value systems having on the "civil society" of Australia? We purport to be a Christian nation one characteristic of which might be the injunction, "Sell what you have and give to the poor". How much of that is occurring, I wonder? Political commentators tell us that these astonishingly wealthy Australians exercise inordinate political influence, as the government seems intent on penalising the poor, the disadvantaged and the handicapped whilst offering benefits to the rich. "Poor fella, my country", as Xavier Herbert lamented. And it seems to be getting worse.

Dr John CARMODY | 03 April 2017  

I knew inequality was serious and growing, in Australia, but did not know we are the top destination for millionaires. I absolutely agree that 'justice reinvestment' is infinitely preferable to jail sentences, except for serious crimes. The idea will be dismissed as soft-left by conservatives, but as Ann says, it has been shown to work in some places. We all know that generally speaking, jail is the last place where rehabilitation can work, especially if they are like the Don Dale Centre in Darwin. Unfortunately political parties love to ride in on harsh law enforcement policies.

Rodney Wetherell | 03 April 2017  

"the top destination for millionaire migrants". Presumably they do not end up on Manus Island. Does having a million dollars give exclusive rights for some migrants, apart from merit or any other consideration? The P.M. recently advocated putting money where his mouth is. Perhaps those governing Australia should be more open about putting their mouth where their money comes from, either directly, or through firms that benefit from sources that badly affect Australia and Australians, like coal, tobacco, sugar and the 'big end of town' when much of Australia's wealth disappears overseas into secret accounts.

Robert Liddy | 03 April 2017  

Along with poor education, there is heavy smoking and alcohol consumption, obesity, drug addiction and terrible parenting. These are all major afflictions of poor people, puts of cycles of deprivation, and most evident among Aborigines in rural towns. How much can government do, and how much has to be up to individual and family responsibility and action?

Eugene | 03 April 2017  

Fairness and equality was enshrined in Australian values. We were an egalitarian society, not so long ago, however I am noticing more wealthy people from non-english speaking backgrounds, acquiring expensive real estate here, which they don't seem to value or maintain. Whether it is owner occupier or investment property, it seems they are driven by the dollar and materialism. This may be a factor in the changing nature of Australian society.

Cam Bear | 03 April 2017  

Disturbing facts in a thoughtful and wise reflection piece Ann - would be good to see whether SMH or The Age would reproduce this - or some version of it. Important message and would be good to put this into the wider public domain - I think there are some pollies who might respond.

Elizabeth Morgan | 03 April 2017  

Aboriginal incarceration rates will plummet if the remote communities - the creatures of Western socialist ideologues of the 60s - were promptly shut down, and their inhabitants warmly invited to join mainstream Australian society, or to resume an authentic traditional aboriginal lifestyle - ie, without any government safety nets. There is a reason the aboriginal remote communities are centres of despair, boredom and incredible violence. It has nothing to do with them being aboriginal ... a community of any race or culture would go down the same path in the same circumstances. Welfare has destroyed the Australian aboriginal soul, just as it has destroyed those of the Native Americans and the Inuit. Apart from a few brave voices, no-one is prepared to face these facts. And so, in the face of the overwhelming evidence, we clutch at superficial remedies like those suggested in the post and pat ourselves on the back.

HH | 03 April 2017  

I cannot but respond to HH. Prior to 1788 those remote communities and their way of living WERE "mainstream Australia". That cannot be denied. The European colonists took the land (as by right and often by force) and introduced a number of previously unknown diseases. Those indigenous communities who were living around Port Jackson, the Illawarra and the Hunter were forced off the land -- they weren't so "remote" before then! So HH's "Ex cathedra" declaration -- "It has nothing to do with them being aboriginal ... a community of any race or culture would go down the same path in the same circumstances" -- it perplexing given that "aboriginal" does not refer to "race" (a contended term, in any case") but their being the ORIGINAL (in this case the displaced) occupiers and owners of the land which were stolen by our forebears. It is hardly surprising -- given that for those original inhabitants, society, religion and culture were fundamentally linked to those stolen lands -- that depression, a sense of worthlessness and alienation from when HH glibly calls "mainstream Australia" persist so powerfully and so enduringly.

Dr John CARMODY | 04 April 2017  

“….given that for those original inhabitants, society, religion and culture were fundamentally linked to those stolen lands….” (Dr. John Carmody). Can we want the old time land-based aboriginal religious status quo ante to be restored? Logically, if we call ourselves Christians subject to Christ’s ‘great commission’, we can’t welcome the return of animism no matter how therapeutic we think it may be to its former adherents. When the Jews lost their temple and land, they survived rabbinically on hope (“Next year in Jerusalem”). Since 1947, they’ve regained their land but the temple is still unbuilt and Judaism is still rabbinic. The restoration of Temple Judaism looks unlikely. As Christians under the mandate to evangelise, we can only propose Christianity to be the ATSI’s rabbinic equivalent of their old time animism. But as land has nothing to do with the felt self-worth of a Christian, there should be no spiritual nexus between land and a First Australian. Any such nexus would be a bondage of idolatry. Shouldn’t the factors that produce self-esteem in a first Australian be the same factors as do this work in any non-indigenous Christian?

Roy Chen Yee | 06 April 2017  

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