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Partners in crime: the relationship between disadvantage and Australia’s criminal justice systems

Poverty cycle Recidivism Social disadvantage Courts Criminal justice Australia

Australia’s criminal justice systems are intertwined with broader cycles of disadvantage. Addressing deep and persistent disadvantage in Australia requires fundamental reforms to the operation of our criminal justice systems and improving their interaction with essential human services.

Rising incarceration rates have been locking some of Australia’s most vulnerable people into cyclical disadvantage, at enormous and escalating costs to governments, families and communities. Yet we have been becoming ever more punitive in our approach, at a time of falling crime rates. The status quo is costly and unsustainable, both financially and in terms of human potential.

The failings of this system most impact people and places already disadvantaged. It is these lives which are caught in the teeth of criminal justice systems lacking a unified purpose, oscillating between punishment, deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation. The indecision in purpose of these systems, and the resulting inequities and outcomes, are to all of our detriment.

Key findings:

  • Cycles of disadvantage drive people onto Australia’s criminal justice “conveyor belt”. Australia’s criminal justice systems have become the default policy response to complex disadvantage in Australia.
  • The criminal justice “conveyor belt” compounds existing disadvantage, creates new disadvantage, and traps people, families and communities in cycles of disadvantage. Any contact with the criminal justice systems, even short periods in remand, or contact via a parent, is associated with poorer outcomes for families and communities.
  • More people are trapped in these cycles than ever before.
  • There is an opportunity for government and philanthropy to work together with service providers, communities, practitioners and business to reform criminal justice systems and to break the relationship between disadvantage and Australia’s criminal justice systems.
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