Crime, Justice and Social Determinants

It has been said that all wars begin long before the first shot is fired.  So it is with crime.  The causes of crime are not to be found in the justice system.  They arise well before.  And so the solutions cannot rest on the justice system alone.

The social determinants of crime are broadly similar to the social determinants of health which are reflective of living and working conditions.  These in turn hinge on the availability of work, adequacy of education and access to health services.

There is an established domino effect on a child’s health and education outcomes, and consequential societal outcomes, notably crime, where there is economic and social deprivation.  A child’s health and education is in turn singularly dependent on affordable access to services and resources.  But there is a disparity of affordable access between communities.

A 2009 Australian Human Rights Commission report identified a number of ‘high stakes’ communities in Western Australia.  Large proportions of young men from these communities are cycled through prison and then returned.  This can lead to further destabilization of those communities.

Moreover the high imprisonment rates from residents of such communities contribute to community break down, elevated crime rates and high incarceration rates.

Logically, preventative funding and improved accessibility of services in these localities will change the behavioural dynamic of both the community and the individuals residing there.  Overseas evidence indicates that the result is the emergence of safer and more confident communities.

Crime is a burden on the whole of our society.  It impacts our lives through loss of property, increased insurance premiums, and, when there are assaults, the need for medical intervention.  It also requires the diversion of scarce government resources to support the justice system.  As reported in the West Australian newspaper, since coming to power the Barnett Government has spent $655 million expanding the capacity of the prison system.  The daily cost of housing a prisoner reached $191 a day in 2011-12 with each prisoner spending an average 217 days in custody.

People want to see  ‘justice done’ and in response governments of both persuasions have invested heavily in the judicial and corrective services systems.  Western Australia’s incarceration rate is now above the national average.  More alarmingly, Aboriginal Australians are incarcerated at ten times the rate of non-Aboriginal Australians.  This ranks as the highest for any ethnic grouping in the world.  It’s time for change.

Imprisonment rates per 100,000 of population by ethnicity[1]


based on ethnicity


White 130

Black 680

Mixed 370

Asian 180

Chinese 50

United States of America

 based on ethnicity


White 412

Hispanics 742

Blacks 2,290

Western Australia

 based on overall population



Western Australia



Imprisonment rate for adult Aboriginals 2,483


 based on overall population






Imprisonment rate for Adult Aboriginals 1,720

As a 2010 parliamentary report highlighted that the effectiveness of prison as a deterrent is called into question when:

  • The high, if not worsening, recidivism rates for particular groups of offenders are examined;
  • The increasing cost to our justice system and therefore the taxpayer, is accounted for

A collaborative interagency response is needed

If we as a society are to change the behaviours that are integral to many of these issues a high level of interagency collaboration is needed.  Without it, the ‘wicked problem’ that is the ongoing root cause of crime in high risk communities will remain unaddressed.

This root cause includes all the issues of Aboriginal disadvantage, including dispossession from land, cultural alienation, social dysfunction, family dysfunction, poor standards of health, higher than average levels of mental illness, high levels of substance abuse, domestic violence, poor school attendance rates, poor employment participation rates, poor standards of housing and overcrowding, and racism.  Assuming that sustainable change is what we’re chasing, the ‘building blocks for targeted interagency intervention endorsed by COAG are perhaps not a bad place to start.  These ‘building blocks’ include a focus on;

  • Early Childhood
  • Economic Participation
  • Governance and leadership
  • Health
  • Safe communities, and
  • Schooling or education

As the tombstones of many government interventions attest, single agency intervention alone is insufficient.  Agencies must be empowered and incentivised to intervene within a collaborative framework.

Ironically, this does not simply require a behavioural intervention in the targeted communities.  It needs a change in the behaviours of existing departments and service providers whose KPI’s , funding and reporting structures are strongly vertical.  A ‘wicked problem’ indeed.

[1] Adapted from the Community Development and Justice Standing Committee Report No ^ ‘Making our Prisons Work’ 2010

Photo courtesy Flickr User kIM DELram