CAROL NIKAKIS and REBECCA BUNN. The impact of failed drug policies on our criminal justice system cannot be ignored

Mar 20, 2018

There is now indisputable evidence that the criminalisation of drug use causes significant harm to people who use drugs, their families and the wider community. Even the United Nations has conceded that the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed to curb drug use, increased the spread of blood-borne viruses including Hepatitis C, and seen a burgeoning criminal drug market flourish.

The Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO) has worked with people in the correctional system for 145 years. During this time, we have developed from a material aid provider based near Pentridge Prison, to a state-wide provider of services for Victorian prisoners. We also assist men and women to transition back into family life and the broader community upon release, or while completing a community corrections order. As a result of our work, we see first-hand the complexity of social issues that arise from involvement in the criminal justice system, the flow-on effect for families and, in particular, the impact on the hidden victims: the children of prisoners.

A 2015 report by the Victorian Ombudsman found that at least 83 percent of women and 75 percent of men in Victorian prisons had a history of drug use, exacerbated by concerning rates of mental illness, acquired brain injury and homelessness. At the national level, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found that two thirds of Australian prisoners used illicit drugs in the 12 months preceding their imprisonment, and one in four received mental health treatment while in prison. Statistics like this confirm the stories we see every day.

We know that a high percentage of prisoners have not successfully completed high school. When they drop out as young people, they often find their way into out-of-home care and the juvenile justice system through drug use, street work and homelessness. Once in the system, continued misuse of alcohol and other drugs leads to repeated incarceration for many, especially where long term, chronic drug use has led to criminal behaviour to support a habit. If not addressed early, cumulative trauma and institutionalisation then impacts dramatically on an individual’s ability to gain control over their drug use and rebuild their lives upon release.

Suitable support for prisoners with drug treatment needs, both within prison and within community settings, is absolutely vital — yet it is difficult to access. These people  are at heightened risk of drug overdose following their release from prison. Mental health issues and a lack of suitable housing also mitigate against successful transition, in both city and regional locations. Access and support from community-based mental health services, pharmacies and General Practitioners is often lacking. Low levels of literacy can further hinder opportunities for employment.

Recently in Victoria, some positive steps have been taken to address the many issues confronted by people caught up in the criminal justice system. However, the reality is that they face immense stigma, often encountering discrimination on the basis of their criminal histories, their current or past drug use and their mental health issues, all at once. It is time to consider the negative impact of current drug policies on those who are trying to lead better lives, and the children and families who share their struggle and suffer if they fail.

Our ‘tough-on-crime’ and ‘war-on-drugs’ approaches are two sides of the one coin that inflict significant harm on our community. Continued incarceration of people with substance abuse issues or addiction is not the answer, and will certainly not lead to a safer society. Community attitudes need to change. Drug addiction needs to be treated as a health and social issue so that it can be managed appropriately in the community, and with compassion.

This week [Wednesday 21/3/18] VACRO will take part in a national Roundtable convened by Australia21, a not-for-profit think tank for the public good, addressing the social impact of Australian drug laws. Australia21 is bringing together leading thinkers and stakeholders from around the country to consider whether drug law reform is one approach that can lead to improved social policy outcomes in a range of different settings. These settings include housing, social welfare, family violence, mental health, child protection and the criminal justice system, to name a few. For further information, please visit Australia21.

Carol Nikakis is the CEO, Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders; Rebecca Bunn is Director, Australia21

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