Answers were there to greet us in Bourke

Last week, I had a chance to do a ‘roadie’ with my old boss and former Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda. I’ve done a couple of trips with Mick over the years and it is always good fun doing a long drive with the great man.

We we were driving from Brisbane to Bourke along the Kamilaroi Highway, in north-west NSW to visit our friends and colleagues at Maranguka Justice Reinvestment. ANTaR is a long time member of Just Reinvest NSW, which supports Maranguka out of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW.

Bourke forms part of a traditional boundary area for the Ngemba, Murrawarri, Budgiti and Barkinji Tribal Groups and the town of around 1,800 souls includes about 40 per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from more than 21 different language and clan groups.

Back in 2013, the Sydney Morning Herald had an article headed ‘Bourke tops the list: More dangerous than any other country in the world’. At the time, it had the highest rates of ‘breaching bail, trespass, assault, domestic violence and driving offences’ in NSW.

It was the courage and leadership of a number of local Aboriginal people that took the steps to trial justice reinvestment (the first attempt in Australia) as a way of changing the story.

As in many parts of Australia, generations of trauma, dislocation and poverty had left the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples around Bourke disproportionately disadvantaged and disconnected from the rest of the community. It was the courage and leadership of a number of local Aboriginal people that took the steps to trial justice reinvestment (the first attempt in Australia) as a way of changing the story there. Inside Story did a great profile on how justice reinvestment came to Bourke under the leadership of local people like Alistair Ferguson.

We have a frustrating tendency in Australia to fall back to a default of ‘law and order’ measures, mandatory sentencing, more prisons and more police – and this is only amplified every time we near a state or federal election. Our politicians tend to ramp up the rhetoric and tough talk rather than look at the underlying reasons why communities begin to feel under siege.

‘Maranguka’ means ‘caring for others’ in Ngemba language.

Justice Reinvestment: The smarter and safer approach

Originating in the US, Justice Reinvestment is an approach to criminal justice reform that ‘involves a redirection of money from prisons to fund and rebuild human resources and physical infrastructure in areas most affected by high levels of incarceration.’ In other words, as Mick Gooda has said a number of times, it is about community development rather than continuing to build more and more prisons.

‘Maranguka’ means ‘caring for others’ in Ngemba language. It is a fitting name for the initiative that is an Aboriginal-led, place-based model that looks to invest in the community first.

And this has been the foundation of the most successful community led Justice Reinvestment initiative in Australia to date. The positive impact of justice reinvestment in Bourke has seen other communities around NSW and Australia look into how they can reverse the escalation of negative justice system interactions with a return to investing in the community.

The Maranguka team collaborate with the police, schools and council on a range of issues that impact the community and there are youth programs, driving instruction programs and a regular morning ‘check-in’ between the Maranguka Community Hub members, key services and the police to discuss how to support community members in need and particularly children who might be at risk of offending.

On this trip, I was honoured to observe Mick Gooda meet with a number of Aboriginal leaders from the community that are supporting and guiding justice reinvestment. The meeting was to progress the way the various clan groups would oversee the work of Maranguka through the Bourke Tribal Council. The BTC is a unique model of community representation and oversight and another excellent innovation of the Bourke Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

In 2018, KPMG launched an Impact Assessment of the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project. The headline findings included:

  • A 23 per cent reduction in police recorded incidence of domestic violence and comparable rates of reoffending
  • A 31 per cent increase in year 12 student retention rates and a 38 per cent reduction in charges across the top five juvenile offence categories, and
  • A 14 per cent reduction in bail breaches and a 42 per cent reduction in days spent in custody.

KPMG went on to estimate that ‘the changes in Bourke during 2017, corresponding to the operation of the Maranguka JR Project, resulted in a gross impact of $3.1 million’ (with an operational cost of $0.6million). So for just one year, there was a five-fold return on investment made through Maranguka Justice Reinvestment!

‘It begs the question… why would Australia do anything else to address entrenched issues around incarceration and negative interactions with the justice system?

With our partners at Just Reinvest NSW and through the Change the Record Campaign, ANTaR has been lobbying state and federal governments to more heavily resource justice reinvestment initiatives.

It has been encouraging to see the NSW Government and Labor opposition parties commit to greater support for Justice Reinvestment, during the recent election the state.

The next Federal Government must make a big investment in Justice Reinvestment across Australia. As we near the Federal Election in 4 weeks time, we have an opportunity to tell our federal politicians that we value strong, connected, healthy and happy communities over an ever increasing reliance on prisons and a law and order response that inevitably leads to devastating rates of incarceration.

All too often we only get to share negative statistics and bad news. The community of Bourke and the wisdom and leadership of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in that town and their friends and partners across the wider community have given us some precious good news. We have evidence that this works, it is now (well past) time to see justice reinvestment become a pillar of how communities across Australia work together for a more equitable and sustainable justice.

Author: 
Paul Wright
Issues: Justice