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“Smart on Crime” not “Tough on Crime”

September 23, 2016

redback5-crime-punishmentRussell Marks, Crime & Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System, Redback Quarterly, 2015

Do we just want vengeance on people who commit crimes, or do we want  to stop them reoffending after their sentence?

Vengeance costs us more. That’s because prisons are expensive, don’t work as a deterrent, and don’t rehabilitate. Dumping an offender in prison for a few months is likely to make him more of a problem when he’s released. If our goal is crime reduction – and if our concern is for the victims of crime – we should be more interested in problem-solving than punishing, says Russell Marks.

Marks has worked as a criminal defence lawyer. In Crime & Punishment he sets out how to mend a broken justice system, based on evidence. The system is broken because it over-invests in punishment and under-resources rehabilitation.


We might say that a person chooses to commit a crime, but often that choice is made within a structure of inequality and social disadvantage. Many offenders have markers of disadvantage – poor education, abuse as a child, low income or no job, mental illness or brain injury, substance abuse, homeless or indigenous heritage. Disadvantage narrows choice, restricting the number of legal options a person has. Knowing this does not excuse crime, but helps us understand how it can be reduced.

Russell Marks (Photo: Redback Quarterly)

Russell Marks (Photo: Redback Quarterly)


Marks also argues “that we should focus on the needs of victims much more than we do – and that doing so doesn’t mean we can’t also focus more on offenders’ needs. Or, more accurately, on what society needs to prevent offenders from committing crimes”. Victims are excluded from the justice process, unless they have to be a witness during a trial, in which they experience the trauma of cross-examination trying to prove they are lying.


Marks examines the Restorative Justice approach. A variety of community conferencing models and Murri or Koori Courts have had good results in Australia, despite being under-resourced. They have been shown to cut recidivism rates in half and satisfy the needs of victims. In Queensland, 98 per cent of group conference participants – including victims – were satisfied with the outcome and perceived it to be fair, before the Newman Government discontinued conferencing.

Justice Reinvestment is the diversion of resources from prisons to cheaper, community-based crime prevention programs. Marks describes how a Republican politician in Texas helped devise this strategy to save money and reduce crime. Few people had heard of this approach when Marks’ book was published last year, but now there is a Justice Reinvestment trial in Bourke, NSW, which was featured recently on Four Corners.

Amnesty International Australia Director Claire Mallinson with the Qld Report, "Heads Held High"

Amnesty International Australia Director Claire Mallinson with the Qld Report, “Heads Held High”

Justice Reinvestment is a key proposal in Amnesty International’s current campaign to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in prison. This month, Amnesty released a report on kids in detention in Queensland, and recommended that the state government fund an Indigenous-led, evidence-based Justice Reinvestment trial to address underlying causes of offending.

Marks’ book is short and easy to read, and uses lots of stories and actual cases. He concludes: “My claim is simply that the more restorative, the more therapeutic and the less punishment-focused our criminal justice system becomes, the better we’ll be at prevention, at rehabilitation and at reducing alienation among both offenders and victims. Sanctions like prison would then be reserved for the ‘worst of the worst’ – those for whom containment is the best option.”

Highly recommended, especially if you want a more effective justice system and a safer society.

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