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Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee
Value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia
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Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee
Pratt, Sen Louise
Humphries, Sen Gary
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Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee
(Senate-Friday, 17 May 2013)
Content WindowLegal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee - 17/05/2013 - Value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia
McDONALD, Mr Lawrence, Assistant Commissioner, Productivity Commission; and Head of Secretariat for the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision
Evidence was given via teleconference—
CHAIR: Welcome. We invited you to be part of the inquiry today on the basis of your recently published Report on government services 2013: Indigenous compendium, which contains information on corrective services and youth justice services which we consider to be relevant to the committee's inquiry. I invite you to make a short opening statement if you would like to, at the conclusion of which I will invite members of the committee to ask questions.
Mr McDonald : Thank you. I would like to thank the committee for the invitation to participate. I am sure you understand that, although I am from the Productivity Commission which is an Australian government organisation, in my role as the head of secretariat I represent a Council of Australian Governments steering committee made up of interjurisdictional representatives.
In the way of general comments, of course we support the principle of justice reinvestment, the emphasis on prevention rather than cure, but if you would allow me, I will just note a few things: firstly, a focus on prevention does not necessarily remove the need to address the current range of acute needs; secondly, justice reinvestment only pays off if the interventions themselves are successful. Particularly in relation to Indigenous outcomes, a recent Productivity Commission roundtable into the role of evaluation in improving Indigenous policy emphasised that, with some exceptions, there is a lack of robust evaluations about the effectiveness of some of the interventions in this space. Again, particularly in relation to Indigenous outcomes, we would caution against an overemphasis on the economic pay-off, because, particularly with Indigenous justice outcomes, although the rates are very alarming and need to be addressed, the numbers involved are often small. For example, there are under 1,000 juveniles in detention in Australia, and under 500 Indigenous juveniles. So the economic pay-off from addressing that high detention rate may be relatively small. The main benefits are the social benefits to the individuals, families and the communities involved.
In relation to the work that we produce that may be relevant to the committee's work, we produced a report on government services that compares the performance of governments providing a whole range of services, their equity, effectiveness and efficiency, and, as you have noted, that includes a section on justice, which covers police, courts and corrections, and a section on child protection and youth justice. We also produce two other reports that may be relevant. One is the Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage report, which reports on outcomes for Indigenous people across a strategic framework of indicators. It includes indicators: on family and community violence, because that talks to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people as victims as well as offenders in the justice system; imprisonment and juvenile detention rates—there is a specific indicator on juvenile diversions, trying to divert young people from involvement with the criminal justice system; and some information about repeat offending rates. Each of those indicators has a section which provides the evidence base and contextual information and the available trend information for those indicators. The latest OID report came out in 2011, so it is a little bit dated, but a lot of that background information may be useful to you.
The report also includes a series of 'things that work' case studies, examples of programs or policies that are having positive impacts in the communities. That includes early investment in the justice system: programs directed at diversions, getting people into community corrections rather than the prison system, rehabilitation services and services to limit reoffending; and also a number of interventions that fall outside the justice system per se that can affect offending rates—programs directed at alcohol and drug abuse, the education system, improving the economic outcomes for Indigenous people and Indigenous people's involvement in sport, cultural and community activities.
The final report we produce is the Indigenous expenditure report, which estimates how much money government is spending on services provided to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In includes a section on expenditure on public order and safety, which includes expenditure on police, law courts and legal services, prisons and other corrective services, which includes a section on juvenile corrections. That illustrates the potential pay-off from improving outcomes for Indigenous people. Currently, for every one dollar spent on a non-Indigenous person in the public order and safety area, government spends about $5.83 per Indigenous person. So you can see there is big scope for potential economic savings if the rates of involvement with the criminal justice system were more equivalent. Having said that, I am happy to take questions on any aspect of the work that the secretariat does for its steering committee.
CHAIR: Thank you, very much, Mr McDonald. I am going to turn first to Senator Pratt, who specifically requested that you hear from you and who I know has to leave early.
Senator PRATT: I am not sure whether you have with you your report on government services, but I am interested in how you put together a national assessment of corrective services performance indicator framework. I note clearly from your remarks already that you are cognisant of the argued need to balance acute needs versus long-term outcomes. I note also that it seems that some of the outcomes that you want to assess still seem to be in development. Is that right?
Mr McDonald : Yes. The Report on Government Services is a report that has been around for a long time. It was commissioned by the heads of government in 1993, and we are up to about our 18th edition. The steering committee is made up of central agency representatives, so people from first ministers, treasury and finance departments. It is advised on its work by a series of working groups which are made up of line agency representatives, so we have a corrective services working group which has representatives from the corrective services departments in each state and territory. It is that working group, together with my staff in the secretariat, who over time have developed a framework of indicators. To run through the process, first of all, the working group had to agree what their joint objectives of the service were, then come up with how you would measure whether or not you had achieved those objectives and then develop the data sources or identify appropriate data to inform a measure of that indicator. As you have noted, in the performance framework we have some indicators which are considered fully developed. We have complete and comparable data for them, so we can compare performance across states and territories. For some other indicators, either we currently do not have good enough data to report against an indicator. An example there would be a prisoner health, where we have a great deal of interest in the health status of people in prison but we currently do not have very good data to report against that indicator. There is a lot of work going on with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in the jurisdictions to address the gap. In other areas we have data but it is just not comparable across states and territories, because they collect the data in different ways—their systems differ. In those circumstances we report the available data with caveats. Often you can do meaningful analysis by looking at what is happening within a jurisdiction over time, rather than comparing across jurisdictions: you can compare growth rates across jurisdictions rather than absolute levels.
Senator PRATT: That is helpful, thank you. To add more complexity, if the Commonwealth were seeking to drive justice reinvestment approaches to things an understanding of the outcomes, as you are clearly driving to try to do, would require a comparison of outcomes with other investments happening in other portfolio—for example, within Health or FaHCSIA and those kinds of areas. Clearly, there is already a lot of work going on under similar circumstances: partnership agreements between state and Commonwealth governments are looking at those other kinds of issues. How is it that we can start to be able to take the silos out of the assessments when we are dealing with cohorts of people within the criminal justice system, within drug rehabilitation or within other kinds of services?
Mr McDonald : I agree it is a particular issue. For example, we do currently report an indicator of repeat offending, or returns to prison, returns to police, but it is not even reported in the corrective services chapter; it is reported in what we call the justice preface, an overview section. The corrective services providers argue strongly that, although they attempt to do a degree of rehabilitation in prisons, the major influence on whether or not people reoffend is the unemployment rate when they are released. This is speaking from the secretariat's position. We would like to develop an indicator which measures whether people get access to appropriate support services when they leave prison, to help them integrate into the community and get a job and so on. But we run into that silo issue that you have referred to—that, once people leave prison, they become the responsibility of a different portfolio, and their two data systems do not talk, so we do not know what proportion of people who leave prison leave into a case managed or a supported system. Although it is an indicator we would like to work on, the silos are stopping us from developing an appropriate data set to support it.
I am familiar with the national agreement and some of the national partnership arrangements because the secretariat here collates the performance data for the national agreements and some national partnerships for the COAG Reform Council. I think it shows some promise as a mechanism, if the Commonwealth wanted to influence what was happening with the states and territories. We have seen in other areas, like hospital waiting lists and immunisation rates and so on, that states and territories have changed their practices in response to national partnership agreements. They can create the incentives. Some of those agreements have been quite open in the mechanisms by which the states and territories can respond. I think in this space, where you might be looking for responses on the education front or on the economic front rather than a direct justice intervention, that might be a good mechanism to go forward.
Senator PRATT: Can you expand on that just a little bit? I am interested in how your data sets to do with corrective services could start to push into the other data sets so that they can mutually drive each other.
Mr McDonald : We are working on that at the moment in relation to prisoner health, for example, because the block there has been that, in many jurisdictions, health services are provided by the health portfolio into the prison, and the corrective services area has said: 'We don't provide that service. We have these people under lock and key, but the service they get is from this other service provider.' The way that is particularly being addressed at the moment is that most jurisdictions have signed up to a two-yearly survey of prisoners which surveys them on their health status, their access to health services and so on. It is a second-best solution, if you like. Rather than getting direct administrative health data, we are getting survey data directly from prisoners, but its benefit is that it is comparable across the states and territories—those states and territories participate in the survey. In the area of trying to find out whether people leaving prison are getting access to ongoing support services, we would need to build a bridge between the prison services and their data and the social services that are being provided. In some cases, that might be building bridges between state and territory prison services and some Commonwealth services that are being provided when they leave prison.
Senator PRATT: Thank you. That is helpful.
Senator HUMPHRIES: In talking about the way in which we have programs that produce good outcomes but pass a benefit down the line to another area of government or even another level of government, to what extent does the Commonwealth Grants Commission have the capacity to measure and compensate for that?
Say you have a program in the Northern Territory which diverts people out of welfare and into work, and it is successful. Is it possible that the Grants Commission can reward the Territory for having taken people out of the Commonwealth's area of responsibility to provide for the social welfare payments of those people?
Mr McDonald : I am from the Productivity Commission, so I cannot really speak for the Grants Commission's internal processes. My understanding is that their focus is more on revenue-raising advantages and disadvantages, and cost advantages and disadvantages, in delivering services. I am not sure they have what is almost an input/output model that lets you say that if you improve outcomes in this area you will get cost savings in this other area. I know it is one of the issues that has driven the national partnership agreements and the reforms to federal financial relations back in 2008. It was a bit of a recognition that some of the reforms being asked of the states and territories would have their biggest payoffs in improved productivity and participation of people in the workforce, while in tax revenue terms those benefits would largely flow to the Commonwealth rather than the states and territories. But I am not quite sure who did that modelling work to estimate the quantum involved.
Senator HUMPHRIES: We have the Attorney-General's Department here, and I imagine they might be able to answer that question for me, thank you.
CHAIR: I do not know if you have a view on this or not: you mentioned earlier that one of the problems was the scarcity of evaluated programs where it can be established that there has been a real difference made. Am I right in remembering that is what you said?
Mr McDonald : Yes, that is right.
CHAIR: That is certainly a theme that has come up in the course of the inquiry. One of the tenets of justice reinvestment as it has been developed in the United States is, I understand, that there is a role for rigorous evaluation of interventions that occur both in terms of those designed to divert people from the present system and in terms of those where there is investment in communities where crime is identified to predominantly occur. That is an important aspect of justice reinvestment in terms of establishing that programs that are tried actually work. In the United States there are various bodies involved in doing those evaluations. I am not sure to what extent we in Australia have a readily ascertainable pool of knowledge about what programs are being trialled and to what extent they have been evaluated, if at all. Do you have any overview of that?
Mr McDonald : The ones I am most familiar with are those in relation to Indigenous programs: COAG established the Closing the Gap clearing house, which collates and does some meta-analysis of available evaluations of Indigenous programs. They are looking at programs across all of the Closing the Gap strategic areas, which include safe and supportive communities that have a particular justice focus within them. In their collection, justice programs are some of the weaker areas. I am not criticising the work of the clearing house; it just means that this is an area where there are not very many evaluated programs available. The clearing house can pick up only those programs that government has evaluated; it does not do its own evaluation of the program. It does a meta-analysis of multiple programs that have been evaluated. Does that make sense?
Mr McDonald : That is the best I am aware of. I am sorry if I am telling you your own business, but you are probably aware that the Australian Justice Reinvestment Project by the University of New South Wales and James Cook University has recently established a website. It is trying to pull together related information about justice reinvestment specifically. It is a very new website, though.
CHAIR: I was aware of that. I was wondering if there was anything additional to that, though I did not think there was. I have a couple of questions arising out of that. Because at the moment there is not a justice target in the Closing the Gap strategy, is that potentially why there are fewer evaluated programs that are related to the justice area?
Mr McDonald : I would like to say yes, but there is a lack across many of the areas for action. It just seems to be an issue not just with Indigenous programs but also in relation to social programs more generally. They are often more difficult to evaluate and they are often longer term, so the number and the rigour of the evaluations is relatively limited.
CHAIR: Do you have a view about justice being included as a target in the Closing the Gap strategy?
Mr McDonald : I know that is something that the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples are very keen on. They are now represented on our Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage working group and we are currently discussing changes to the next report so we are considering their views.
I suppose the difficulty is: who sets the targets, because the targets are largely a political decision rather than one for the secretariat. Once you have made that commitment, it involves a certain level of investment to then met the target. I think it is particularly difficult in the justice area. We do not have the demonstrated interventions that we know, if we increase investment by this much, we should achieve and can achieve the target. Any target we set at the moment would be aspirational and the hope would be that it would drive action. But it would be a brave move to set a target when you do not know you have an intervention that can influence that outcome.
CHAIR: Yes, it might be a bit chicken-and-egg, it seems to me.
Mr McDonald : Yes. You cannot get people to move until you give them a target to head for, but if you set an unrealistic target, sometimes that can have a disincentive effect.
CHAIR: Yes. The Australian Justice Reinvestment Project has made a submission to the inquiry and one of the recommendations they would be asking the inquiry to make is for the establishment, with Commonwealth assistance of some form, of an independent national body, or a body to help facilitate the consideration and even the uptake of justice reinvestment in Australia. They would see that as a leadership role but also it could provide services such as initial advice about justice reinvestment principles, helping interested communities or states or territories to get the data and ascertain potential communities where it could be trialled, looking at potential interventions and then helping evaluate those. This would, in a sense, contribute to the knowledge, I suppose, about what programs do and do not work and help with that evaluation process. Are you aware of their views on that? Do you have any views about that?
Mr McDonald : I have not read their submission so I do not have any previous consideration of the recommendations. I think that the provision of information is always useful. I am just not sure of what the current level of knowledge is within government and what the government policymakers already have and whether you are running the risk of setting up a body to tell governments their core business, which is running the justice system. Potentially, you would hope that they know about the interactions between the justice system and their social and economic policies. More information is always good, but I would just need to be convinced that there was gap to be filled.
CHAIR: I appreciate what you are saying. I think the thrust of what they are proposing, and as are some of the other submissions, is not so much forcing the information on governments, but being a resource for those governments that might be interested in learning more about the way justice reinvestment may be adapted from the US model, perhaps, to Australian conditions, and some assistance if that is direction they would like to investigate. But you have answered that question, thank you.
I do not think that we have any other questions for you, Mr McDonald. Thank you very much for your attendance today and giving evidence to the inquiry.
Mr McDonald : You are very welcome, and of course if you have any questions for the secretariat later on, please just let us know.
CHAIR: Thank you very much.