A dramatic increase in female prisoners in Victoria has been blamed on a tough new law and order regime aimed at violent men.
Lawyers and criminologists say with the increase in women's imprisonment outstripping men's, this practice is both discriminatory and ineffective.
Women's incarceration rate has climbed over the past decade, up 41 per cent between 2004-14, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The crime rate over the same period dropped 1.6 per cent, Victoria Police crime statistics reveal. Experts say sentencing practices and tough law-and-order reforms are key drivers.
"The crackdown on parole and bail and tougher sentencing reforms [such as the abolition of home detention and suspended sentences] have all seen an explosion in prisoner numbers," says Liana Buchanan, executive officer for the Federation of Community Legal Centres.
"We've been really attuned to that in the men's system where the overcrowding hit first. But the [recent state] budget shows these policies are also causing an explosion in the women's prisoner population."
In May, the Victorian government announced $119 million over four years to expand the women's prison system, including a 44-bed mental health unit at the maximum security Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and expanded accommodation at both DPFC and the low security Tarrengower.
Budget documents reveal the population is expected to increase 35 per cent – an extra 158 women's beds – over the next two years, Ms Buchanan says. "That's enormous. That we're not looking at this and kick-starting some major initiatives to tackle this increase is a serious concern."
Most female offences relate to theft or minor assault. Julie Edwards, chief executive of Jesuit Social Services, says women, who rarely commit serious violence, would have previously been more likely to receive home detention or a suspended sentence as a consequence of generally lower level offences – options now abolished.
Changes to bail are also likely to be having a disproportionate effect on women, St Kilda lawyer Sue Macgregor argues.
A high proportion of female offenders are homeless due to family or other violence, she says. Combined with trauma, mental illness and substance abuse problems they experience in large numbers, these women are at high risk of breaching bail conditions such as regular reporting to police because of their chaotic lives.
"Philosophically bail is meant to get you to court, that's all it is," Ms Macgregor said. "Under the amendments, failure to report on bail to a police station is now an offence."
Breaching bail means women are remanded in the maximum security DPFC (there is no minimum security remand prison for women) with the most heavily sentenced prisoners. Remanded prisoners have no access to the addiction, education or health programs that might help with the reasons behind their alleged offending. "It's insane," Ms Macgregor says.
"These reforms came in as a result of some high profile cases where there were terrible, disastrous effects ... as a result of decisions made with the justice system," says lawyer Jill Prior, referring to the case of serial violent rapist Adrian Bayley in particular.
"The reforms that have come in have clearly not had the result they were designed for," says Ms Prior, chief solicitor at the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Service. "They have impacted across the board, regardless of the nature of someone's imprisonment."
Measures like tougher bail and mandatory sentences, she says, have made it much harder to accommodate an individual's prior history and current life circumstances when they come before the courts, raising equity concerns.
"When you take away the individual circumstances, background and needs of the person being charged, in this case women, you are effectively exercising some form of discrimination, Ms Prior says.
Minister for Corrections Wade Noonan says he can't comment of the courts' decision-making. "It is up to the courts to determine if an alleged offender should be placed on remand or bailed while they await their case, and it is up to courts to determine the appropriate sentence, including whether it be time in prison or a corrections order served in the community."
The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission declined to comment on the discrimination claims, saying the office had not undertaken specific work in the area.
One woman's story
Juli and Prue, mentee and mentor in the Women And Mentoring program.
Juli calls the Neighbourhood Justice Centre in Collingwood her "home away from home" and she's not being smart or funny – although she's both.
The NJC is a magistrate's court. But with its holistic approach to offending and crime prevention, and connections to housing, substance abuse and mental health support, it feels more like a drop-in centre ("Even the security guards are friendly – 'g'day mate'," she says).
Juli (who does not want her surname published) was lucky her second brush with corrections involved the NJC and took place in 2012-13 before the toughest sentencing reforms came in. It's where she reported weekly under the conditions of a Community Correction Order the NJC imposed for affray. And it's where she continues to regularly meet Prue, a volunteer from the Woman And Mentoring (WAM) program, who helps her navigate life's challenges.
Juli fits the profile of women at risk of imprisonment. Rejected by her mum and homeless at seven (she slept her first night in a tyre swing) she was brought up by a succession of men. She saw plenty of violence, she says, but not directed at her, nor other forms of abuse. Violence marred her adulthood, however. An abusive ex-partner deliberately drove the two of them into a pole at 120km/h, leaving her with an acquired brain injury. Such injuries, along with intellectual disabilities, affect up to 60 per cent of women prisoners in Victoria, according to Jesuit Social Services.
She lost custody of her kids ("they said I might forget to feed them because of the brain injury", she says incredulously). Fighting to restore her family in and out of court, she was convicted of assault after shaking a relative who offered her money in exchange for custody of her youngest daughter.
Juli was sentenced to two months in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in 2010-11. Prison is stupid, she says. Terrified when she went in, she was just as terrified on release, not least because, she was homeless again, a situation compounded by stigma ("Everyone hates you when you've been to jail").
Both statistically increased her chance of being a victim of crime and reoffending. Both these things occurred. Juli is confident the NJC and WAM are helping her break the cycle.
|Annual prison population growth in Victoria in 2013-14|
|Women prisoner numbers grew 18 per cent to 403|
|Men prisoner numbers grew 13 per cent to 5397|
|Imprisonment rates as a proportion of the Victorian population in 2013-14|
|Women's incarceration grew 17 per cent|
|Men's incarceration grew 11 per cent|
|Bail and remand changes|
|Number of women remanded in prison increased 32 per cent in 2013-14|
|In May 2015, 36 per cent of women in prison on remand.|
|Of those, 60 per cent later released at court.|
|Parole denied decisions for women in 2013-14 increased 100 per cent|
|Source: Report on Government Services 2015, Corrections Victoria, Victorian Minister for Corrections|