Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria) — I rise to make a contribution to debate on the Victorian Auditor-General’s Prison Capacity Planning report of November 2012. I will start by saying that this report mentioned a number of worrying trends when it was released 12 months ago. Since that time those trends have only increased. I will not say they have peaked because I think we are going to have continuing issues in terms of prison capacity for some time to come.
We need only look at recent headlines in newspapers to see that the community believes we have a justice system that is crumbling. As recently as Wednesday, 31 October, the Age twice used the headline ‘Justice system –crumbling–‘. A recent editorial headline in the Ballarat Courier reads: ‘Government must make fixing corrections system a priority’.
The editorial goes on to say:
“The police union says the problem has become a safety issue with inmates being kept in cramped cells and police taken off the beat to look after them.
Cells at metropolitan and regional police stations were never designed for long-term prison accommodation. While court cases will be scheduled on weekends in an attempt to ease the problem, the state government really needs to quickly find a temporary place to hold low-risk prisoners.”
Coupled with that, we have had a situation where this government has reduced funding to legal aid. Even as recently as 7 November an article in the Geelong Advertiser headed ‘Aid lawyers feel stress of demand’ talks about Geelong-based services dealing with ‘unprecedented demand’. It also says:
“With continuing demand and no increased resourcing, we’ve had to look long and hard at how to best target our services …”
An article by Greg Barns in the Age of 31 October headed ‘Guilty verdict for Napthine government’ talks about ‘the shunting of people from cell to cell’ being a recipe for mental and physical illness. Closer to home, the Geelong Advertiser of 26 September included an article headed ‘Bellarine police forced off streets’, with the subheading ‘State prison crisis hits city’. Even the smaller police stations have their cells full of prisoners. These cells were not built to service this at all. They were meant for very short stays, not to become essentially alternative prisons. We have fewer police on the beat on the Bellarine Peninsula because they have to tend to these prisoners.
If this situation continues during the holiday season, which traditionally kicks off on the Bellarine Peninsula on Melbourne Cup weekend and goes through until about Easter, we will have significant issues because these townships do not just double in size; they quadruple in size for nearly five months of the year, particularly due to people staying in the caravan parks.
This report highlights the issue of overcrowded prisons. It talks about prisoners in police cells. It talks about all of this meaning that police are pulled off the beat and that we essentially have a failing system with crime rates continuing to increase year after year since this government came to power. Under the Labor government, crime rates continually decreased, but now police are being forced off the beat to deal with overcrowding issues.