Note: For a copy of the Social Justice statement, or for more information, visit http://www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au/
Social Justice Sunday was celebrated in parishes over the weekend of 24 September and this year’s statement by the bishops is on a unique and timely subject: prisons and the justice system. The statement is hopeful and reflects the Gospel-inspired dream of human dignity held by the Church for some of the most undervalued members of our society. It also wonders aloud about a system in this country which falls terribly short.
The CEO of Jesuit Social Services Julie Edwards spoke on our justice system as she opened the National Justice Symposium held at Australian Catholic University over the weekend of 21-22 October, a symposium specifically on this topic.
She said: “We want a community where people flourish and get to reach their potential. We want to bring this type of community into being through evidence-based assessments and respect for human dignity, not just knee-jerk reactions. Let’s not have a shallow, superficial and populist conversation. We want to help people turn their lives around. We need to step back and ask, “What does a humane, effective justice system look like?”
Retired magistrate Frank Vincent QC gave the opening address to the proceedings of the Symposium with some reflections on his own ideas about having worked in the justice system in New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.
“I have these ideas that are about human dignity. They’ve always been subversive and they require some response. Crime is a consequence in part of discrimination and general disadvantage. In believing this, you are then faced with a dilemma. Are you prepared to accept this? Are you prepared to accept a certain level of crime or damage or are you prepared to undertake the remedial measures to address these issues?
His questions were asked within a context of the justice system, and those who become victims of it. He challenged those assembled, most of whom work in some way in the system, to consider why it is that we criticize the current situations in Bali, or Bangkok – and fail to recognise that many of the features of Australia’s system are just as bad, if not worse.
“I was on my way to defend a young aboriginal man at the Alice Springs courthouse on a manslaughter charge where a death had resulted from a drunken brawl in the Todd river. On the way to the courthouse, I saw an almost identical fight taking place and thought, I am really engaged in a meaningless ritual. What does all of this mean?”, he said.
“Where was the true guilt in relation to this event? is this justice to attribute guilt? or do we who stand by have some responsibility for what occurred. We know the living conditions in aboriginal communities. We as a community had created and maintained those very conditions. I put these thoughts to the judge in the plea.”
The social justice statement by the bishops asks many of these same questions. The Statement, titled Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the justice system, points out that between 1984 and 2008, while rates of crime either stayed steady or fell, the number of Australians in prison per 100,000 people almost doubled. The majority of Australian prisoners come from the most disadvantaged sections of the community: the underprivileged, those suffering from mental illness, and especially Indigenous people, who make up about 2.3 per cent of the Australian population but about a quarter of those in prison. The incarceration rate for young Indigenous people is even higher.
So why can’t we as a society develop practices which rehabilitate and restore life and hope to people who are, for the most part, victims of discrimination and poverty.
The statement calls to account an unequal justice system which sees people from different states and territories incarcerated almost by the virtue of the postcode they live in. It calls to account a justice system which has extraordinarily high numbers of indigenous imprisoned mandatorily, despite the existence of more innovative options for rehabilitation and restoration.
The principle of restorative justice was discussed at length at the symposium – a system which places victims and their supporters with the offender, and allows them to have a mediated discussion about the impact of the crime on each party. It allows for the breaking down of anonymity, allows the development of relationship.
The CEO of St Vincent de Paul in New South Wales also commented on the importance of relationships of love in the lives of prisoners. Indeed, for many in prisons, the only visitors they receive are from prison chaplains or volunteers.
“The government and justice system don’t do love well. Usually, when someone is arrested on an offense, it is a red flag for the family. So many people who go through the prison system have these experiences of disadvantage. We need to be better at love. What post release support needs to include is love and friendship.”
And in so many areas of society, this is what is severely lacking. Love, friendship and respect for human dignity. This is one area in which the Church can advocate for change.