Assessing the public’s views to incarceration versus non-incarceration alternatives using a Citizens’ Jury approach

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; with engagement in injecting drug use and tobacco smoking also very common. Mental illness and alcohol misuse particularly have been shown to inform imprisonment rates.

Considering the 26 per cent Indigenous adult prison population in Australia (80% in the Northern Territory) there is clearly an Australian imperative to redress this social policy failing. However, there is an impression of little sympathy for offenders among the general public and this is used by politicians to perpetuate punitive penal policies.

Justice Reinvestment (JR) has been gaining attention among Indigenous, health and offender advocates and is touted as a possible solution to Indigenous over-representation in Australia’s criminal justice system. JR aims to divert funds intended to be spent on criminal justice matters back into local communities to fund services (e.g. mental health, drug and alcohol, employment initiatives, housing) that address the underlying causes of crime, thus preventing people from entering the criminal justice system.

However, what is missing in Australia is evidence to support JR beyond appealing rhetoric — evidence that can facilitate public debate and policy attention among politicians. This project, comprising a team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, seeks to determine, through ‘Citizens’ Juries’, the opinions and views of a critically informed public towards treatment alternatives to incarceration. It also examines whether policy makers are influenced by the opinions and views of the Citizens’ Juries.

This research will provide important evidence in the offender health area and contribute to the JR debate among offender health, criminal justice, political and community stakeholders.

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