Justice reform: leveraging lessons from other sectors


Andy Chiang

Engineering successful reform in the justice system

Over the past year or so, there have been significant calls for reform to Victoria’s justice system. These include the Parliamentary Inquiry into Victoria’s Criminal Justice System in March 2022, through to the Cultural Review of the Adult Custodial Corrections System, which was tabled to the Minister for Corrections in December 2022.

Laws around bail were tightened significantly in light of the tragic Bourke Street massacre in 2017 but have since had a disproportionate impact on women, Aboriginal people, and people from impoverished or homeless situations. More recently, the Victorian Government has committed to examining reforms to bail laws in response to the coroner’s report into the death of Veronica Nelson.

Victoria has also recently undergone significant reform in the family violence and mental health sectors, following the Royal Commission into Family Violence (RCFV) and the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System (RCVMHS). ACIL Allen has worked on several projects related to both reforms, as well as in the justice sector. So, given that context, what lessons have we determined can be drawn from these reforms to engineer successful future reform in the justice system?

Multi-agency approaches are needed for effective reform of the justice system.

One of the critical lessons of the RCFV and RCVMHS was that thorough reform cannot be achieved within a single sector. The RCFV’s recommendations brought about whole-of-government change and involved initiatives led by various departments to address family and domestic violence across prevention and intervention. Similarly, the RCVMHS’s findings looked beyond the mental health system in recognising that many other social services, such as housing, education, and justice, can profoundly impact individuals’ mental health. These findings highlight the importance of multi-agency responses.

Reforms to other social services are needed to ensure those who leave the justice system can transition out successfully rather than trapping people within a vicious cycle of reoffending. Those previously involved in the criminal justice system are often considered lower in priority when accessing social services such as housing and health services. Adequate and timely access to these services can mean the difference between staying out for good and falling back into the justice system.

However, whole-of-government and multi-agency approaches can be difficult to implement successfully, especially when there is a lack of clear accountability and responsibility for implementing recommendations. To counter these difficulties, the RCFV recommended the establishment of a specialist agency to lead the implementation of specific recommendations or to provide oversight of the implementation of various recommendations. The RCVMHS also recommended the establishment of a Mental Health Commission and a non-government agency led by people with lived experience. Reform of the justice system must also be publicly accountable, whether led from within a government department or through a specialist agency.

Reforms must be human-centred.

Governments have recognised this and are working to catalyse the development of these industries through lands and infrastructure, public policy and regulatory settings, and provision of direct funding. However, it is important these initiatives remain market based and driven by the economics of the opportunity, not the public funding that is available.Past reforms into complex human and social service systems have demonstrated that reforms need to be human-centred to build a service system that is effective and responsive to the needs of people who come into contact with it. The RCFV and RCVMHS demonstrated this by prioritising the lived experiences of individuals and their families, carers, and supporters. Similarly, the Cultural Review of the Adult Custodial Corrections System has engaged extensively with prisoners and staff as part of its methodology.

While such an approach can conflict with the retributive or punitive perspectives of the purposes of the justice system, the evidence is clear that people are not only being punished for their actions but also for the social and health circumstances in which they find themselves. There is clear evidence that people from some backgrounds are over-represented in the justice system.

These include:

Further, there is an increasing body of scholars and social workers with lived and professional experiences of the justice system who are important voices that bring unique perspectives into justice reform. While recent reviews into the justice system have not considered the views of victims (and victim-oriented reform is an important area that needs its own discussion), the views of victims should also be considered to ensure the justice system meets the needs of victims as well.

There is a need to ensure sufficient capacity for reform.

There is often an impetus for reforms to happen promptly after major reviews and royal commissions. This is partly because systems are often in dire need of urgent reform once they reach the state where a royal commission is needed, and there is a desire for governments to demonstrate their resolve or effectiveness when it comes to implementing these reforms.

The RCVMHS quite rightly concludes that complex reform takes time. Consultations with the community and with people with lived experience are essential steps to ensure reforms are implemented in the best possible way. Similarly, any justice reform should consider what needs to be done immediately and what reforms need to undergo an appropriate process to execute those reforms well.

Similarly, reforms within the justice system also need to consider the workforce. As critical agents of the government to engender behavioural change, it is necessary to ensure the workforce is appropriately trained, equipped, and resourced to undertake this work. Correctional staff training should focus on the previously mentioned health and social inequalities, helping them to accurately identify these issues and build the capacity of prisoners and offenders to prevent future reoffending.

Significant reform programs in other areas can reduce the capacity for reform. When workforces are asked to implement multiple reforms from different reviews, enquiries, or royal commissions simultaneously while juggling their business-as-usual duties, it can lead to reform fatigue. At best, this can lead to ineffective implementation of reform, but at worst, it can compromise the integrity of the service system. Justice system reforms should therefore be sensitive to the capacity of the workforce to implement these changes, including providing adequate capacity for additional training, and additional resourcing for reform leaders and champions within the workforce.

Where to from here?

There is undoubtedly need for reform in the justice system and significant room for improving the outcomes of those who experience the justice system. However, reform should be undertaken with great care, drawing on the experiences and lessons of previous reforms both within and outside the justice system. The recent experiences of reforms in family violence and mental health have led the way and provided essential learnings for the justice system.

[1] Australian Law Reform Commission. (2018). Pathways to Justice – Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. ALRC Report 133. 

[2] O’Brien, M. T. (2022). Brain injury and prison: over-representation, prevention and reform. Australian Journal of Human Rights, 28(1), 1-20.

[3] Department of Justice. (2003). Victorian Prisoner Health Study, Melbourne, Government of Victoria. 

[4] Parliament of Victoria. (2022). Inquiry into Victoria’s Criminal Justice System. Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee. 

[5] Baidawi S & Sheehan R. (2019). 'Crossover kids': Offending by child protection-involved youth. Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice no. 582. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.