Victorian election: How are the major parties addressing the law & order paradox?

By Dr Diana Johns
Senior Lecturer in Criminology; School of Social & Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

Tagged:

election; policy; law Election; Policy; Law and Order

Key points

The Coalition promises to:

  • Arm police with 4,000 new Tasers
  • Have PSOs on select railway stations during the day
  • Reintroduce the ‘Police in Schools’ program
  • Introduce mandatory minimum sentencing for violent reoffending, through changes to concurrent sentences, and for additional child sex offences
  • Change the bail system to ‘one strike and you’re out’
  • Make it even harder for prisoners to get parole
  • Create a ‘Victorian Serious Sex Offenders Public Notification Register’
  • Extend support for and include victims of crime in legislative decision-making
  • GPS track people on parole after serving a jail term for a home invasion or car-jacking
  • Expand the existing Lara Prison precinct to include a new 1300-bed prison, including a 300-bed Western Victoria Remand Centre
  • Build an additional 300-bed Eastern Victoria Remand Centre in the Dandenong area
  • Fast track public security and counterterrorism measures, including new Terrorism Restriction Orders that would restrict and monitor the movement of individuals ‘in the processes of becoming radicalised towards violence’.

Labor promises to:

  • Continue to tackle the causes of crime, reduce repeat offending, and provide support to victims of crime
  • Recruit 3,135 new police officers (adding to the 20,000+ strong Victoria Police workforce that already includes 14,695 sworn officers)
  • Always at least two desk officers on duty at all 108 of Victoria’s 24-hour police station
  • Establish minimum requirements for the number of officers on the road and available to respond to emergency calls
  • Set minimum standards for crime prevention and local community engagement, custody management and ‘operational safety frameworks’ to improve officer welfare.

The Greens promise to:

  • Push for more funding for community legal centres and legal aid
  • Champion justice reinvestment approaches
  • Expand specialist courts including Koori Courts, Drug Courts, the Family Violence Division of the Magistrates’ Court and Neighbourhood Justice Centres

Analysis

Law and order, according to Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy, is the “number one issue” for many Victorians. The framing of this issue by the three major parties, however, suggests different ideas about how best to tackle issues of crime and community safety. The main emphasis of the Coalition seems to be on reactive, punitive measures involving harsher sentencing, increased reliance on imprisonment, remand and post-sentence restriction, including public disclosure of sex offenders’ details, and expanding the presence and weaponry of uniformed officers. These policies seem to assume that crime can be controlled and prevented by apprehending and locking up more people – under harsher conditions – assumptions that have been consistently proven wrong.

Labor is pledging to continue a strong record of investment in community protection, around a central theme of tackling the causes of crime to reduce reoffending. Labor has presided over a period that has seen Victoria develop the toughest bail and parole regime in Australia, restrictive youth justice policies, and substantial investment in prison-building, in firm response to community concerns about crime. At the same time as their apparently punitive policy stance, Labor has also invested significant resources in community crime prevention, which they promise to continue.

At the heart of the Greens’ justice policy are principles of social inclusion and community-building as long-term strategies to reduce crime, fear and violence. The main feature is apparently a commitment to policies that reflect up-to-date evidence about ‘what works’. Alongside an emphasis on human rights and access to justice, the Greens have a strong focus on police powers, their main concerns being to curb police militarisation and increase police accountability.

The law and order paradox

Since 2014, when the Andrews Government was elected, Labor’s tenure has been marked by a law and order paradox.

On one hand, the number of people committing offences – particularly youth crime – has dropped. On the other, community concern about violence has intensified, largely due to media narratives that exacerbate public fears and magnify misperceptions about the extent and scale of the supposed ‘crime problem’.

While increases in criminal incidents in Victoria can be linked to increased reporting of family violence and sexual offences, for instance, public fears seem to reflect racialised crime myths perpetuated by media stories about ‘African gangs’, ‘Apex’ and ‘Moomba riots’. Serious and persistent non-racialised crime problems have been downplayed in favour of these more sensational headlines.

Another driver of public fear about crime and safety are the rare but shocking incidents of violence perpetrated by individuals, such as the horror that unfolded in Bourke Street on Friday afternoon, 9th November, which reignited terrifying memories of James Gargasoulas mowing down innocent pedestrians 22 months earlier.

These events spark fears about the government’s capacity to keep us safe. When the perpetrator is black and Muslim, those fears fuel further racialised crime myths.

Similar acts of violence have triggered legislative responses. The case of Sean Price, for example, who in 2015 murdered 17-year-old Masa Vukotic then raped another woman days later while under Department of Justice supervision. This case intensified public fear already heightened by the 2012 rape and murder of Jill Meagher by Adrian Bailey who had also been under Department supervision.

The resulting bail and parole reforms – under Coalition and Labor governments – have increased remand populations, intensified pressure on prison capacity, and thereby provided political justification for more prisons.

Given the abundant evidence of the crime-causing effects of imprisonment, however, not least the failed US experiment in mass incarceration, any attempt to ‘jail our way out of crime’ can be seen as deeply flawed policy.

Evidence-free policy

Fuelling public fears about ‘law and order’, the LNP has been mounting a campaign of reactive and punitive strategies, apparently aimed at deterrence and public protection. What is striking is the lack of reliable evidence to support these policies.

In response to this month’s Bourke Street attack, Matthew Guy has promised to ‘fast track’ laws to introduce Terrorism Restriction Orders, expanding police powers to try and control people who ‘may be developing terrorist behaviours’. This seemingly ignores the Harper Lay Report’s emphasis on community-wide collaborative approaches to preventing terrorist threats.

The ‘Police in Schools’ program was discontinued in Victoria over a decade ago and replaced by targeted police presence, via the Youth Resource Officer program, which aims to build trust with ‘at risk’ youth via strategic relationship-building activities.

Similarly, the proposal to add public registration to Victoria’s Sex Offenders Register, to “publicly disclose certain details of adult serious sex offenders, including photographs, [and] identifying descriptions” – supposedly for “the protection and safety of children, families and the community” – apparently ignores evidence that public registers reduce neither recidivism nor public fear.

The rising numbers of people on remand – in youth and adult prisons – have been associated with increased volatility and violence, yet the LNP is proposing to increase remand capacity, with no acknowledgement of these significant public safety risks – both for prison management and for the communities to which people are released from custody.

Evidence-based policy

In contrast, the Greens’ policies reflect evidence about longer-term strategies that reduce crime and its underlying causes, such as justice reinvestment, a data-driven approach to community-based crime prevention that aims to redirect money spent on prisons to the communities that feed prison populations.

This approach has been trialled in Bourke, NSW, since 2013 and has shown remarkable results in reducing crime, most notably domestic violence and drug offences.

Police play an important role in maintaining law and order, but key to this role is the issue of legitimacy – the community’s ability to maintain trust and confidence in police. Recent controversy about police misconduct has brought police legitimacy into question, however, particularly in terms of oversight and accountability.

Whereas Labor and the Greens echo the recent parliamentary inquiry’s recommendations about independent oversight and investigation of police complaints, this is a striking omission in Coalition policy announcements, which have instead focused on extending the presence of Protective Service Officers (PSOs) and the numbers of police who can use Tasers to apprehend suspects. In contrast, the Greens explicitly argue against further police militarisation and for limiting the use of electroshock weapons to life-threatening situations.

As the success of Bourke’s justice reinvestment project suggests, police are most effective when they engage and collaborate with the communities they are policing, using a problem-solving approach to address the underlying causes of crime problems.

Labor’s pledge to apply ‘a systemic approach to tackling high-harm offending’ appears to reflect this understanding, as does the Greens’ emphasis on the importance of police ‘with strong community links and a focus on maintaining a safe, peaceful and just society’.

Taking the long view

Short-term electoral cycles hamper effective responses to crime. This may explain the Coalition’s emphasis on reactive policies, which feed into community fears, rather than relying on evidence about what works to ensure community safety.

In terms of the courts, the LNP is focused on curtailing judicial discretion, proposing mandatory minimum sentencing and scrapping concurrent sentences, for instance.

In contrast, Labor and the Greens promise to support and expand specialist courts and programs shown to reduce offending and reoffending. Whereas Coalition crime prevention policy revives and reinforces outdated programs and ineffective approaches, Labor’s community engagement strategy recognises the need to work actively ‘upstream’ of the problem through early intervention.

Effective justice policy takes the long view of crime as a social problem that requires investment in communities.

Banner image: Victorian Police officer directs traffic in Melbourne.  Source: Logan Campbell via Flickr

Coalition - Primary Policy Documents

Mandatory Sentences Counter-terrorism Laws 'One Strike' Bail Parole Tasers

Labor - Primary Policy Documents

More Police Counter-terrorism Laws Police Station Staffing Crime Prevention Emergency Response

The Greens - Primary Policy Documents

Drug Court Justice Reinvestment Legal Aid

Tagged:

election; policy; law Election; Policy; Law and Order

Election Watch: Past Editions