Opinion piece by Associate Professor Diane van den Broek, Board Member
Recently the Institute of Public Affairs suggested that prisoners should be provided a choice of taking work in the service industry in lieu of a prison sentence. (SMH, 10.3.23) On the surface, this might seem like a great way to plug the immediate labour shortages faced by Australian service industries, while also sparing individuals time behind bars. They argue savings to taxpayers through reduced incarceration costs and extra income tax revenue.
However, such a proposal raises several concerns.
I’m all for saving taxpayers money (they cite $1.95 billion a year) particularly given the absurd cost of incarceration and the extremely poor return on investment, which we could measure via unacceptable rates of recidivism. The system is broken.
Anything to divert individuals away from incarceration is a step in the right direction. However, we need to be careful and identify the devil in the detail. The Institute of Public Affairs notes participants would work 40 hours a week for between six months and three years, in either the private or public sector, and that they would receive the award payment for their employment.
Award rates, that’s a great start.
We know that employment is one of the biggest lifelines to reducing sticky recidivism rates.
So that’s also a big tick.
We know that if ex-prisoners do not have access to adequate housing, health support, and financial independence through employment they will struggle to build a new life free of crime. The potential discrimination they will face from employers once a criminal record is revealed, coupled with the quiet shame many (especially female) ex-prisoners feel typically means that the path to redemption can be extremely treacherous.
Everyone should have access to the basic needs to live a dignified life, including access to housing, health, and employment. Providing new pathways to avoid incarceration is therefore laudable. Therefore, we need to ensure that the jobs offered to these men and women are quality jobs paid according to prevailing award rates that help provide a career structure. Jobs that help facilitate a better life for the individuals involved and prove beneficial for the employers that employ them. Let’s ensure that these workers are not denied choices about where they work, what type of work they do, and what career choices they have and ensure that discriminatory decisions are not imposed by the judicial system or even uninformed employers.
To be a progressive innovation, we must ensure that this scheme is well-regulated. The workers need to be protected by employment standards enjoyed by all other Australian workers and that they have the freedom to move between employers. There have been too many examples where the absence of both provisions has led to more examples of ‘slave’ labour and entrenched disenfranchisement. As a society, we need to be aware of how best to support people with a criminal record to help them move beyond past mistakes and on to a better and more fulfilling employable future.
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