Social determinants of a healthy life

Assessing the public’s views of incarceration and non-incarceration alternatives using Citizens' Juries

Prisoner populations endure some of the worst health outcomes in the community in terms of mental illness, chronic disease, excess mortality and exposure to communicable diseases. High recidivism rates and annual government prison expenditure reaching more than $3 billion have led many to claim that incarceration is a social policy failure that needs to be redressed. One important obstacle to a reform agenda in the criminal justice area is public opinion. The perception of public opinion that is held by policy-makers, as informed by opinion polls, is one of little sympathy for offenders among the general public. This situation is often exploited by politicians to perpetuate punitive penal policies.

Alternatives to public opinion polls are needed to assess the public's views and inform justice policy, as survey-based methods typically present shallow, unconsidered public opinion and thwart good policy development and reform. Citizens' Juries involve bringing together a randomly selected group of citizens, providing them with good information on the issue at hand, and asking them – as members of the citizenry – about their preferences for policy options or resource allocation. Citizens' Juries thus offer an alternative method to assess the public's views; views that are critically informed and thus better aid policy development. The effect of critically informed public views on policy decision-making, however, is largely unknown. The aim of this study was to explore, through Citizens' Juries, the opinions and views of a critically informed public towards how we, as a community, should address offenders in terms of incarceration and alternatives to incarceration. The study also aimed to examine the thoughts of policy-makers on the opinions and outcomes of Citizens' Juries.

Citizens' Juries were carried out by NCIS researchers during 2013 following the award of a Lowitja Institute grant in 2012, and the findings of the study were presented to senior policy-makers in early 2014. One of the key findings from the Citizens' Juries was that citizens believed that excessive investment in prisons has become an unnecessary burden on the public purse. Jurors were also supportive of alternatives to incarceration, including investment in holistic, early intervention and prevention strategies such as Justice Reinvestment. Policy-makers were largely supportive of the Citizens' Jury findings, flagging the need for more concrete information about what Justice Reinvestment might look like in an Australian policy context; this is the focus of an ARC Linkage grant proposal submitted by NCIS in late 2014, entitled 'Towards zero prison population growth: Justice Reinvestment in the ACT'.

The Citizens' Juries research team included Research Fellow Dr Jill Guthrie and Research Officers Ms Corinne Walsh and Dr Melissa Lovell from NCIS; Professor Tony Butler, Dr Paul Simpson and Mr Michael Doyle from the University of NSW; and Ms Jocelyn Jones from Curtin University.

Key NCIS researchers: Dr Jill Guthrie, Ms Corinne Walsh, Dr Melissa Lovell.

Project timeline: April 2013 – December 2014.

Justice Reinvestment

link icon 'Indigenous prison rates are a national shame', Opinion piece on The Drum online analysis & opinion.

Australia's prison system suffers from terrible overcrowding, and there has been a steady growth in the prison population with a continued high representation of Indigenous Australians, mostly juveniles. Incarceration has a heavy social and economic impact on all Australians, not least in terms of the health burden carried by the prison population. That impact is not confined to individual prisoners or the prison gates, but seriously affects families and communities across regions and jurisdictions. Alarming statistics indicate that current policies are not reducing incarceration levels; innovative approaches are therefore required.

Justice Reinvestment is a significant new criminal justice policy approach which first emerged in various states in the USA, and is also being developed in localised areas in the UK. It arises out of concerns at increasing incarceration rates and their economic and social impact, as well as the observation that a relatively large proportion of crime is often committed by the same, relatively small, percentage of the population. Due to the high levels of Indigenous incarceration in Australia, Justice Reinvestment is of considerable research interest. As described by Mick Gooda (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner) in his 2010 presentation to the Australian Human Rights Commission – 'Justice Reinvestment: a new solution to the problem of Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system':

a portion of the public funds that would have been spent on covering the costs of imprisonment are diverted to local communities that have a high concentration of offenders. The money is invested in community programs, services and activities that are aimed at addressing the underlying causes of crime in those communities.


A notable NCIS activity focusing on Justice Resinvestment was the Justice Reinvestment Forum hosted in August 2012 by NCIS in conjunction with the Indigenous Offender Health Research Capacity Building Group (IOHR-CBG) and the Crawford School of Public Policy.

A three-year research project entitled Reducing Indigenous incarceration using Justice Reinvestment: an exploratory case study and commencing in 2013, is a case study using Justice Reinvestment methodology to explore the conditions, governance and cultural appropriateness of reinvesting resources otherwise spent on incarceration, into services to enhance juvenile offenders' ability to remain in their community. The research is funded through the Australian Research Council's Discovery Indigenous scheme.

Key NCIS researchers: Dr Jill Guthrie, Dr Phyll Dance, Professor Mick Dodson, Professor Tom Calma.

Project timeline: 2010 – ongoing.

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Indigenous Offender Health Research (IOHR) Capacity Building Group

Prisoners endure a greater health burden than the general community, and Australia has exceptionally high Indigenous incarceration rates. The IOHR Capacity Building Group is a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)-funded project designed to meet an increasing need to build knowledge in this area by developing research capacity in Indigenous offender health research. The project builds Australia-wide collaborative networks in criminal justice research. A team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers work on projects in areas critical to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous offenders. Outcomes will include better health services for Indigenous offenders, and more generally, improved health and wellbeing for those in the communities from which they come, and to which they return.

Key NCIS researchers: Dr Jill Guthrie, Dr Phyll Dance, Professor Mick Dodson.

Project timeline: 2010 – ongoing.

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Footprints in Time: Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC)

Research undertaken in partnership with the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS) (formerly the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs – FaHCSIA) to develop quantitative and qualitative data management protocols in a longitudinal study of Indigenous children. The project was launched by Minister Jenny Macklin, and is a landmark study tracking long-term development of approximately 1,700 Indigenous children from communities across Australia, with the aim of improving understanding of, and policy response to, the diverse circumstances faced by Indigenous children, families and communities. A data resource has been created by DSS which Australian governments, researchers, service providers, parents and communities can draw on.

Key NCIS researchers: Professor Mick Dodson (Chair, steering committee).

Project timeline: April 2008 – ongoing.

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Updated:  24 January 2017/ Responsible Officer:  NCIS Project Coordinator/ Page Contact:  NCIS Administrative Officer