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Kneejerk reactions to crime don't make any of us safer

Once again, the upcoming Victorian election is driving a race to the bottom on law and order issues between both major parties. Yesterday, the Andrews Government put out four media releases to show how tough on crime they could be. These included one to stop “those convicted of serious offences from associating with others” and another to increase the capacity of Victoria’s prisons –the places where we keep people who have committed serious offences together. Apparently, in the rush to appear busy in this space, the irony was lost on our politicians.

None of this is surprising in an environment where both the Victorian Opposition and their federal counterparts are pushing crime as Labor’s major failing. Fear-based politics generate ample fodder for popular media and have a proven track record when it comes to election outcomes. It doesn’t matter how many times the Crime Statistics Agency remind us that crime is actually dropping. But putting aside the ethical quandary of using selective interpretations of data and dramatic anecdotes to make people feel more vulnerable than they really are, there’s a bigger problem with this approach. It doesn’t actually make our communities any safer.

The evidence from similar restrictive association laws in NSW shows that their application caused serious problems. Three quarters of warnings issued to children and young people turned out to be unlawful. They also reinforced preexisting racial bias, being disproportionately applied to the Aboriginal community. Do we really want to reproduce these fiascos in Victoria to address a gang issue that Victoria Police have repeatedly said doesn’t really exist?

Jason Davies-KildeaCaptain Dr Jason Davies-Kildea is the manager of The Salvation Army Victoria Social Programme and Policy Unit.

Touting an increase in prison capacity as an achievement is another startling development because prisons are overwhelmingly a sign of policy failure. Not only are they housing growing numbers of people on remand – people who are yet to be convicted of a crime – but almost half of those who exit will be back again within a couple of years. Our justice system is consistently failing in its task of rehabilitation, which means we are not giving people a fair chance when they return to the community and we are missing opportunities to reduce crime.

We all have the right to feel safe in our communities. But that safety should stem from an evidence-based policy approach to crime, because kneejerk reactions and policy-on-the-fly won’t cut it.