I applied for the Aurora Internship Program hoping to gain a better understanding of the interaction between Aboriginal people and the criminal justice system, and specifically which solutions were being trialled. I was thrilled when I was placed with Just Reinvest NSW. I previously had an understanding of the criminal justice system and its disproportionate impact on Indigenous Australians from my university studies and through volunteering at the Aboriginal Legal Service. However I was interested in gaining a greater understanding of alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system.
Just Reinvest NSW, as is obvious from their name, is an organisation dedicated to supporting community-led justice reinvestment approaches with communities in NSW.
Justice reinvestment theorises that the public funds currently being spent on incarcerating individuals should instead be spent building stronger communities, ultimately resulting in fewer people being sentenced to terms of imprisonment. This idea is grounded in an intersectional understanding of what causes people to have interactions with the criminal justice system. Structural causes such as unemployment, mental health, substance abuse issues, racism, and policing practices are all problems that aren’t solved by being sent to prison. Instead, communities are best placed to strategise solutions and hold the answers to these complex issues.
These facts are all the more real for Indigenous Australians, because of their over-representation in the criminal justice system. The statistics on Indigenous over-incarceration in NSW and Australia are stark. While 3% of the Australian population are Indigenous, they account for 25% of the prison population.
Furthermore, over the last 15 years prison budgets have tripled. Prisons are expensive but they don’t appear to be effective in reducing recidivism. In fact, prisons are proven to be criminogenic spaces. Justice reinvestment also advocates for community-based and alternative sentencing options; for example, rehabilitation programs as an alternative to imprisoning someone for drug-related offences.
To me, justice reinvestment simply makes sense. It’s logical and, if applied successfully, is a win-win situation: communities lose fewer members to jail, and government doesn’t need to spend so much money on correctional services. For these reasons I was really excited to get to see the inner workings of Just Reinvest NSW, particularly since they have managed to achieve such amazing success with the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Bourke.
Throughout my internship I was given opportunities to undertake a diverse range of tasks; no two days were the same. I was responsible for social media management, which essentially meant spending time each day reading up on current Indigenous news and any new developments in the justice and social sector that could be relevant to a JR approach. I was also given a variety of research tasks, mainly preparing briefs to the JR staff to help them learn and prepare for various meetings they had lined up. Something that struck me as challenging and interesting about working in an NGO like Just Reinvest is the volume and diversity of stakeholders with whom it’s important to have a rapport with. The JR staff were meeting with high-level government officials, police officers of various rankings, young people, economists, likeminded NGO staff members who run projects that align with JR’s goals, lawyers, and community members on a daily basis. I was amazed by the ability of the JR staff to put on different ‘hats’ for all the different roles they had to play. So much of getting an NGO like JR off the ground, particularly in its early stages, is networking – and all of the JR staff had a serious knack for interpersonal communication crucial to that task.
One of the major tasks I worked on was preparing a funding report for JR to show philanthropic supporters the outcomes of their valuable investment. Astonishingly, JR has limited state funding with one data position being funded by Health and FACS. Philanthropic funding has been crucial to the important work of Maranguka and JRNSW. So preparing a really thorough, detailed and robust report for funders was a significant task and greatly appreciated by everyone in the organisation.
This job hammered home for me how difficult it is even for amazing initiatives like JR to get off the ground in the political climate of Australian ‘law and order’ politics. Observing the real struggle that NGOs like Just Reinvest NSW experience made their work all the more inspiring.
I feel privileged to have met all of the amazing staff at Just Reinvest NSW and to have been a part of their family for 5 weeks this summer.