News + Views

International Women’s Day

This International Women’s Day, the rise in the number of women incarcerated in Victoria has not abated.

By Elena Campbell, Associate Director of Research, Advocacy & Policy

Similarly, advocates and service providers around the nation continue their work to support criminalised women and their families, as they have done for decades. But unlike in previous years, a recent spike in media coverage and policy focus on the issue suggests that this crisis is finally starting to register at a wider level. This additional focus does not necessarily mean, however, that we are any closer to turning this increase around, or addressing the myriad factors that contribute to it.

For this shift to occur, policy and decision makers must acknowledge a number of realities. As we explored in our event co-hosted with the Law and Advocacy Centre for Women last year,  these include that:

  • Many legal and social mechanisms are inadequate for women’s needs and can, in too many instances, compound harm rather than alleviate it.
  • A lack of adequate or appropriate social housing can doubly and triply impact on women and their children.
  • Law reform which is rushed in an effort to respond to incidents of violent crime – crimes usually committed by men against women – can have a disproportionately negative effect on women.
  • Therapeutic interventions can not necessarily be assumed to be working for women, where their particular needs function as a barrier to engagement.

Most importantly, this shift relies on recognition that we cannot keep using our corrections system as a substitute for the provision by government of safe and basic social infrastructure.

These are big ticket turnarounds, which definitely won’t occur overnight. Over the course of the years ahead, the CIJ’s Women’s Decarceration Agenda hopes to support these turnarounds with equal parts advocacy, service delivery and research which can contribute to the existing evidence base about the problem and – perhaps more relevantly for the purposes of CIJ – identify achievable steps towards solutions.

On the research front, our evaluation of the Women Transforming Justice program will specifically examine the impact of gender informed legal representation and outreach-based case management, as well as assessing the capacity building and leadership focus of the program.

In addition to the evaluation, we will also be conducting a Needs Assessment, using court observation and case file analysis to look at the similarities and variability in women’s experiences when they go through the court system. We will examine what impact the attitudes and assumptions of different judicial officers, combined with the compounded trauma of court attendance on already traumatised women, can have on women’s experiences. This work will support the CIJ’s ongoing advocacy for reform and judicial education in this area.

On the service delivery front, the CIJ has received a grant from the Integrated Services Fund administered by the Federation of CLCs to fund a Social Work position with our partners at the Law and Advocacy Centre for Women. This role supports women on remand or in the community. In addition, we have created an inaugural Financial Counselling position at the Mental Health Legal Centre through a grant from the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. This role will support women who are in the community, on remand, or on custodial sentences and who have financial problems, including related to gambling harm.

Further focuses of our research and advocacy are still in development, but are likely to include:

  • A review of effective post-release accommodation supports, with additional work currently underway to explore service delivery options with service sector partners.
  • A review of current therapeutic and problem-solving court options for criminalised women – remembering to question our own assumptions that a solution that works for some people will necessarily work for all.
  • A focus on the misidentification of women as predominant aggressors in the family law and family violence legal systems. This theme has emerged consistently throughout our broader family violence research and we will be building on this on over time.

We will be seeking feedback on these priorities with service sector participants and advocates in the coming months.

More broadly, of course, our advocacy as part of this Agenda will not be limited to specific projects. In fact, the needs of criminalised women are a feature of almost all of the work we do, including through our many family violence projects, our research and advocacy on spent conviction schemes, and our work to reform the way in which legal mechanisms respond to people with disability. The individually and structurally gendered nature of the justice system remains a consistent theme across them all.

This means that part of our Women’s Decarceration Agenda is to keep an eye fixed on this consistency – to weave the threads together and tell the story in multiple and useful ways – and continue to build the case for reform.

The challenges, of course, are great, and won’t disappear any time soon. For as long as we’re around, however, the CIJ will be doing what we can to debunk the default assumption that prisons can be used as an acceptable substitute for informed and tailored legal responses and genuinely adequate social support.