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If you think jailing someone for drug use is likely to fix a problem, think again. Evidence shows that criminalisation of drug use actually causes more harm to the person who’s caught and convicted. So what? Why should the rest of us care about someone being punished for what everyone knows is a crime? Well here’s why: because of the collateral damage to families and the negative flow on effects across our communities. When the wheels fall off, we all end up paying.

This reality was highlighted at Australia21’s Illicit Drugs Roundtable summit in March 2018, which brought together health and social service organisations and policy leaders from across Australia. The eminent group addressed the evidence that Australia’s prohibition and law enforcement approach, although well-intentioned, is not reducing illegal drug use; instead, it’s causing or worsening many adverse outcomes.

Arrest and prosecution often involves the loss of employment, housing and family and community support. This can spiral into further crime, but also increase family homelessness, domestic violence, child protection interventions, mental health issues and suicide rates. Meanwhile, prohibition and the threat of criminal penalties drives drug users away from the help they need and puts the production, distribution and control of illicit drugs into the hands of criminals.

It’s also important to recognise that drug related crime is very often an outcome of damage, so it makes far better health, social and economic sense to treat the damage rather than simply punish the crime.

Still not persuaded? Read on…

Some of the impacts of drug criminalisation were explored in this piece, which first appeared in John Menadue — Pearls and Irritations. It was co-authored by two of Australia21’s Roundtable participants.

The impact of failed drug policies on our criminal justice system cannot be ignored

Carol Nikakis

CEO of the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders

Rebecca Bunn

Australia21 Director

Managing Director of the Imprisonment Observatory, Monash University

There is now indisputable evidence that the criminalisation of drug use causes significant harm to people who use drugs, their families and the wider community. Even the United Nations has conceded that the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed to curb drug use, increased the spread of blood-borne viruses including Hepatitis C, and seen a burgeoning criminal drug market flourish.

The Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO) has worked with people in the correctional system for 145 years. During this time, we have developed from a material aid provider based near Pentridge Prison, to a state-wide provider of services for Victorian prisoners. We also assist men and women to transition back into family life and the broader community upon release, or while completing a community corrections order.

As a result of our work, we see first-hand the complexity of social issues that arise from involvement in the criminal justice system, the flow-on effect for families and, in particular, the impact on the hidden victims: the children of prisoners.

A 2015 report by the Victorian Ombudsman found that at least 83 percent of women and 75 percent of men in Victorian prisons had a history of drug use, exacerbated by concerning rates of mental illness, acquired brain injury and homelessness. At the national level, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found that two thirds of Australian prisoners used illicit drugs in the 12 months preceding their imprisonment, and one in four received mental health treatment while in prison. Statistics like this confirm the stories we see every day.

We know that a high percentage of prisoners have not successfully completed high school. When they drop out as young people, they often find their way into out-of-home care and the juvenile justice system through drug use, street work and homelessness.

Once in the system, continued misuse of alcohol and other drugs leads to repeated incarceration for many, especially where long term, chronic drug use has led to criminal behaviour to support a habit. If not addressed early, cumulative trauma and institutionalisation then impacts dramatically on an individual’s ability to gain control over their drug use and rebuild their lives upon release.

Suitable support for prisoners with drug treatment needs, both within prison and within community settings, is absolutely vital — yet it is difficult to access. These people  are at heightened risk of drug overdose following their release from prison. Mental health issues and a lack of suitable housing also mitigate against successful transition, in both city and regional locations. Access and support from community-based mental health services, pharmacies and General Practitioners is often lacking. Low levels of literacy can further hinder opportunities for employment.

Recently in Victoria, some positive steps have been taken to address the many issues confronted by people caught up in the criminal justice system. However, the reality is that they face immense stigma, often encountering discrimination on the basis of their criminal histories, their current or past drug use and their mental health issues, all at once. It is time to consider the negative impact of current drug policies on those who are trying to lead better lives, and the children and families who share their struggle and suffer if they fail.

Our ‘tough-on-crime’ and ‘war-on-drugs’ approaches are two sides of the one coin that inflict significant harm on our community. Continued incarceration of people with substance abuse issues or addiction is not the answer, and will certainly not lead to a safer society.

Community attitudes need to change. Drug addiction needs to be treated as a health and social issue so that it can be managed appropriately in the community, and with compassion.

VACRO’s initiatives include:

  • An information and referral service, for families in contact with the Criminal Justice System (03) 9605 1906.

  • VACRO Children’s Foundation, assisting children of offenders at heightened risk of parental drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, mental illness, poverty, housing instability and social isolation.

  • Video Visits Program, providing video links into prisons for children with an incarcerated mother.

  • Supporting Kids and Youth (SKY), child-focused family therapy.

  • Aboriginal Family Visits Program, travel assistance for family members of Aboriginal prisoners.

  • Relink, transitional assistance for men and women preparing to exit prison.

  • Reconnect, transitional assistance for men and women exiting prison.

  • CCATS Program, practical support for women on supervised Community Correctional Orders.

  • Second Chance Coffee, a social enterprise kiosk providing training and work experience to offenders on Community Correction Orders, prisoners on day release and parolees.

  • Second Chance Cycles, a community bike workshop that provides a supportive space for those who are on community work placements.

Australia21’s fourth national Illicit Drugs Roundtable was held in Victoria’s Parliament House on Wednesday 21st March 2018. A Joint Statement on the outcomes was released by the participants, calling on Australia’s federal, state and territory governments to treat drug use primarily as a health and social issue and to remove criminal sanctions for personal use and possession.

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