Justice and the Criminal Justice System - Australian Fabians

Justice and the Criminal Justice System by Dr Peter Norden AO


15 April 2024
Society and community services
Indigenous affairs
Human Rights

On the 26th of January 1988, 40,000 Aboriginal Australians and non-indigenous supporters staged the largest march ever held in Sydney: highlighting the dispossession, suffering and injustice that the forced colonization of Australia had caused the owners of this land. 

In the following 30 years, the prison population of Australia began to increase at five times the rate of the national population, even though, from that time, statistically, serious crime began to diminish right across the country (Fig 1).  How could this have happened?


Figure 1: Imprisonment Rates vs Homicide Rates in Australia 1920 to 2020.

How is it that the criminal justice systems across the States and Territories of Australia could imprison so many more people with disability and social disadvantage, so many more Indigenous Australians while the serious crime rate has been rapidly diminishing across the country?

Since 1988, I have had decades of direct experience working within the Australian criminal justice system and have shaped numerous community initiatives and innovative social service programs aimed at addressing the social determinants of imprisonment. 

I have guided three major social research programs to interpret the growing social divide in Australian society and the entrenched disadvantage, and sense of alienation, experienced in the most disadvantaged postcodes across the nation.

During that time, through peak bodies, I had a Voice, just like the mining industry has a voice, just like the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Pharmacy Guild, the housing construction industry, the armaments industry, the powerful international security organisations, and so on. They employ lobbyists at great expense who gain access both to the political representatives and to the senior Federal and State public servants. 

This is what is lacking for many of the most disadvantaged communities in Australia, and in particular the broad range of indigenous communities who live on the margins of Australian society. 

The conclusions that we drew, reflecting on these decades of direct involvement, research and advocacy, at a local, State and National level of policy analysis and implementation, can be summarised in seven short quotations from my 2021 publication: Seeking Justice in the criminal justice system in Australia.

- Prison walls serve a dual purpose: they keep prisoners from escaping and they keep the community outside, and ignorant, of what goes on behind those prison walls.

- Private prison operators are business people who are more interested in doing well than in doing good (Table 1).

- Let us hope that the future direction of the Australian criminal justice system will be founded on evidence, and not on a misguided model based on our past as a penal settlement.

- A significant change of direction is required to turn around this international scandal of the mass incarceration of Indigenous Australians.

- Through this publication I address the deficiencies of the retributive model of criminal justice and point to the future possibilities, if we were to consider a ‘restorative’ model of justice.

- I attempt to lay the foundations for a substantial change of direction for the future of our criminal justice system in Australia – a movement towards Justice Reinvestment.

- It is time for our community leaders to explore new paths in pursuit of true justice and greater community safety in Australia today. 

We appear to be blindly following the public policy initiatives undertaken in recent decades in the United States and the United Kingdom. It is a policy of segregation and isolation, promoted no doubt by the powerful vested interests of multi-national private security and private prison industries.  We can do better than this, if we can first understand the shortcomings of the present models of intervention, particularly in terms of social division.


Table 1:  Prison operating costs by state. (Source Productivity Commission, Annual Report on Government Services (Report, 31 January 2023))

My earlier years in the Australian criminal justice system were focused on the needs of younger offenders. In 1985 I became Catholic Chaplain to the Victorian prison system. During seven years in that role I began to understand the absolute futility of imprisonment for all but a small minority of offenders: those convicted of serious violent crime. The majority, even back in 1985, were not convicted of violent or serious offences. They had dropped out of school early, had failed to obtain stable employment, and had no capacity for sustaining secure accommodation. 

Next, I moved on to a deeper involvement in criminal justice reform and human rights advocacy, working for Catholic Social Services Victoria, as their Policy Director.  It was there that I began to understand the significance of mental illness and various forms of disability in bringing younger people into contact with the criminal justice system. Current research indicates that around 5 percent of the population has some form of significant disability. Within Australian prisons it is five times that rate (25%). 

I formed a Victorian network of around 50 organisations and agencies which we called The Victorian Criminal Justice Coalition. Over a period of 15 years, it became the ‘go to’ organisation for media comment on Police accountability, prison justice issues, the courts, law reform and crime prevention.  We also regularly made direct representation to senior Cabinet members. The network had high credibility because of the extensive experience of the membership base. 

One of the key issues that we addressed during those years was the introduction and growth of the private prison industry, originally in Queensland, then New South Wales and later Victoria and across the country.

The growth of this for-profit industry from that time has resulted in the little appreciated fact that Australia is leading the world in the proportion of its prison cells now operated by the private sector. The proportion of our prison cells in private hands is more than double that of the United States and significantly higher than the United Kingdom. 

Another core focus of the Criminal Justice Coalition during those years was the dramatic increase in deaths resulting from police shootings. Between 1990 and 1997, 75 people were shot in incidents with police officers. Forty-one were shot by police officers and 33 died from gunshot injuries, self-inflicted. 

Of course, the general public did not have a lot of sympathy with persons committing serious crimes like armed robbery or assault. But the growing number of citizens shot dead by Victoria Police were those without a criminal record at all, but rather those burdened with serious mental illness.

After the shooting death of a young indigenous woman, Colleen Richmond, at Hanover Welfare Services in St Kilda in September 1994, the policy of police use of firearms in Victoria was changed by force command, placing the protection of human life as the number one priority: the lives of the police officers concerned, of the general public and of the person attracting police attention. The number of deaths diminished dramatically over the following fifteen years.  

This change in policy was one of the most successful outcomes of the work of the Victorian Criminal Justice Coalition. We had similar success in changing Victoria Police policy on high-speed police pursuits, where Victoria Police changed their policy and again established that the key priority in determining whether a pursuit should take place must be the protection of human life.

My direct exposure to the Victorian prison population over those years meant that I had close connections with more serious criminal offenders as well. Over more than a decade of the Gangland Wars in the late 1990s, 36 underworld figures were killed. These were serious criminal offenders, engaged in organised and often violent crime. I understood, however, that this type of offender represented less than ten percent of the total prison population, not only in Victoria but throughout the country.  

Serious and violent crime began to decrease during those years across all States and Territories of Australia. This was clearly confirmed by various Bureaux of Crime and Statistics in their annual reports every year. Unfortunately, ninety per cent of the community follow the daily tabloid newspapers for their information, instead of the actual facts. Statistically, violent crime rates have been falling across the country for more than twenty years. If you follow the daily news outlets, you would not get that impression at all. 

Three decades of these experiences convinced me that imprisonment should be used only to deal with serious violent offending. 

The criminology literature identifies four key social determinants of imprisonment: housing, education, health and employment. These are the areas that must be adequately resourced if we are to stop the size and expense of our criminal justice systems from continuing to grow.

It seems remarkable, at the present time, that governments across the country have failed to resource the expansion of housing adequately, especially for low-income and middle-income households. This will have its consequences over the coming decade. 

Access to health services, in particular outside of the Capital cities, is another area where there is evidence of neglect, and failure to provide adequate financial and professional services. In many parts of the country, there simply are not enough teachers being trained, and many are not prepared to work in socially disadvantaged communities. This too will have its social consequences.

From 1995 – 2002, I was the Chief Executive Officer of Jesuit Social Services and their Policy Director from 2002 – 2008. During these years, my focus was much more about establishing crime prevention programs, in the housing, employment, mental health and disability fields. These initiatives were directed towards addressing the social determinants of imprisonment and were largely focused on disadvantaged cultural groups and disadvantaged neighbourhoods. 

The most successful programs were those where we were able to attract independent funding, not from government sources. These programs were well designed and carefully evaluated, and the results found their way to Spring Street in Melbourne, Macquarie Street in Sydney, and to the Australian Capital in Canberra.

Our advocacy and lobbying were based on years of grass roots experience and of carefully planned and evaluated community initiatives aimed at keeping vulnerable young Australians connected and participating in education and training, with a view to stable employment and housing in the future. 

These are the areas where good government investment will pay dividends. The results will not be seen in the short term. The need is for sustained investment in particular localities over years; longer than the normal Federal or State electoral cycles. 

This brings me to the important area of work initiated at that time and completed over more than a decade with the late Professor Tony Vinson AM, originally from the University of New South Wales, and later from the University of Sydney.  

I had worked for more than 25 years at the grassroots level. It was time to look for more substantial solutions: system changing solutions. Solutions that would change the structures of our communities. Some might call it crime prevention. I tend to use a much broader term: community planning and strengthening. 

While CEO of the Jesuit Social Services I saw that our policy and research arm, The Ignatius Centre, was ready for a major project. 

Tony and I put our heads together to design a study that would measure disadvantage by postcode according to many factors. Our focus at this stage was only New South Wales and Victoria. 

We initially chose thirteen different measures of social disadvantage that are correlated with overall disadvantage, according to the research literature: low birth weight, child abuse or neglect, child injuries, early school leavers, unskilled workers, unemployment, long-term unemployment, low income, emergency assistance, psychiatric hospital admissions, court defendants, court convictions, and mortality.

From State and Federal government records and from Census Data, we obtained the figures on each of these thirteen factors according to each postcode area in both Victoria and New South Wales. 

The first report of these studies: Unequal in Life, the distribution of social disadvantage in Victoria and New South Wales (August 1999) was launched in both Melbourne and Sydney. It received widespread print, television and radio coverage in each State. 

This first study was part of a series of four completed by Tony Vinson. It set the scene for the raised awareness and then the proposed policy and program changes we were trying to bring about. If we could show to a wider sector within Australian society, and in particular to the State and Federal governments and their leaders in social policy implementation, that the social divide was increasing, we believed that there would be a greater political will to address that divide. 

Increased public resources were already at that time being directed towards massive prison construction, and to reactive services such as child protection and mental health critical incident responses. These could all be redirected towards more effective early intervention forms of prevention, in those very places where they were most needed. 

What we had been doing through the 1990s set the scene for what later became known as ‘Justice Reinvestment’.  A word of warning: not all things that dress themselves up as Justice Reinvestment can seriously claim that identification. Too many people, within Australia and beyond, are claiming it falsely.  Within Justice Reinvestment programs you must be able to see hard evidence of resources being redirected back into the most disadvantaged communities and a gradual lowering of the imprisonment rate from those specific neighbourhoods. This is not happening at present within Australia.

The second, follow-up report was completed in March 2004: Community Adversity and Resilience: the distribution of social disadvantage in Victoria and New South Wales and the mediating role of social cohesion. 

The focus on the mediating role of social cohesion was a very significant development of our previous work, Unequal in Life. It was an acknowledgement that many of the most disadvantaged communities identified in our earlier study were in fact strong communities with much higher levels of social cohesion than some much wealthier areas. Take Toorak in Melbourne, and Vaucluse in Sydney. Lots of wealth, but very high fences!

Following the release of this second report, Tony Vinson and I once again had extraordinary access to Federal Ministers and Shadow Ministers in Canberra in order to give personal briefings. At a State level we met personally with the Premier and the Treasurer in Melbourne and were very strongly supported by the Minister for Local Communities, John Thwaites.  

In New South Wales, Tony and I presented to all the Heads of every State Government department for a full morning’s briefing. Not just Community Services, Health, Education and Justice, but also Treasury, Transport, Planning and so forth. It was a unique experience. We could not have had greater access to senior political representatives and their senior public servants and policy advisers in both Sydney and Melbourne. 

I was also involved in managing the third stage of the postcode studies completed by Tony Vinson, the third report being published in 2007: Dropping Off the Edge, the distribution of disadvantage in Australia.

This third report was a national study, extending beyond the scope of the two previous reports which covered Victoria and New South Wales alone. By this time, our work was getting very widespread recognition and use throughout the country. One area where this was well illustrated was local government submissions for funding from the Federal Government.  Another was that the available statistical data that we drew up was used by a broad range of non-government agencies in presenting their case for further financial support. 

These postcode studies, which mapped the increasing concentration of social disadvantage in particular localities across the country, sounded a warning at that time. That is why the change in approach that I have called for over more than two decades should be reconsidered today. We need an approach that redirects resources from the construction and ongoing operation of a rapidly expanding prison estate. It needs to draw on the evidence, and to redirect a percentage of those resources to those communities that have been ‘mined’ more and more deeply by the instrumentalities of the criminal justice system. This is Justice Reinvestment.


Fig 2: Example of the Justice Reinvestment cycle where savings are made by reducing the recidivism rate in the communities most affected by the justice system.

In October 2022, over 30 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Australian Federal Government announced a First Nations Justice package of $99 million including $81.5 million to invest in up to 30 community-led justice reinvestment initiatives across Australia and establish an independent national justice reinvestment unit.

This initiative represents a significant change in direction from the prison expansion policies which have marked the last two decades in all States and Territories across Australia.


Final Thoughts


  • My experience shows that positive, radical change can be achieved by listening, asking the right questions, being open to solutions that challenge conventional thinking and advocating fearlessly and effectively. But the job is never finished.
  • More changes are still required to turn around the international scandal of the mass incarceration of indigenous and other disadvantaged Australians. 
  • It will not happen without a serious commitment from community leaders and political representatives. We will need to take risks, and there will be resistance from vested interests. But more of the same is simply not good enough.
  • The role of the community sector and its relationship to government is far more complex today, and there is less freedom and scope for non-government representatives to help bring about the required change.
  • It is not easy to be an advocate for the disadvantaged or for people with different forms of disability. At times it is lonely work. Those committed to such a task can be left quite isolated and unsupported at times.
  • It is critical that those individuals or organisations intent on bringing about policy change or working towards the defence of human rights, establish networks of support to sustain such efforts in the medium to long term.
  • The Australian Fabian network is just such a network of support and encouragement and affirmation. 


About the author

Dr Peter Norden AO is an Honorary Fellow in Criminology at Deakin University. As a young social work graduate from the University of Melbourne, he established a half-way house for high-risk young offenders in 1977. He was Chaplain to Pentridge Prison (1985-1992). He established the Victorian Criminal Justice Coalition in 1992 which acted as a Peak Lobby Group in Victoria for criminal justice reform. Peter is a member of the Australian Fabians Victorian Branch Executive.

This article comes from Peter’s book Seeking Justice in the Criminal Justice System in Australia (Norden, P, Norden Directions, 2021).


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