Back in 2016, the number of women in prison in Victoria had increased by 75 per cent in a decade. This shocking figure could not be attributed to a rise in serious crime. Nearly half the women behind bars were on remand for lesser offences, with most going on to avoid a custodial sentence. The statistics, like the real-life stories reflected in them, suggested the need for a different response.
For women affected by trauma, addiction or poverty, even a short stay in prison can be devastating. Their lives often depend on whatever support is available to them upon release, with their chances of reoffending tied to a complex range of issues. All of which prompted us to launch a thematic grants round in 2017 aimed at finding better ways to keep women out of the justice system. We went on to fund seven projects over five years.
One of them was TaskForce Community Agency’s Living Free Project, which introduced a wraparound model of care offering integrated legal, medical, housing and cultural support to women and girls in Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula. To quote one young participant: “It only takes one really, really good person to put in the time and effort for someone that needs help, to literally change a life.”
Similarly, one really good idea can be all it takes to spark change on a broad scale. For this reason, the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner (VLSB+C) has compiled the outcomes of all the projects funded into a report that makes the case for doing things differently.
The results speak for themselves. A court support program developed by Fitzroy Legal Service and partners saw 79 per cent of women on remand granted bail on their first application. An early intervention program run by Women and Mentoring that pairs at-risk women with trained female mentors helped prevent 87 per cent of participants from reoffending. Half the women who participated in a pilot project delivered by Law & Advocacy Centre for Women in regional Victoria were able to access legal aid they would not have otherwise received.
The seven projects collectively reached more than 700 girls and women, transforming many of their lives. Success is not just measured in numbers though. Beyond Survival, for example, has made police accountability to victim-survivors of family violence a topic of national conversation. The Torch has demonstrated art’s potential to provide a pathway of hope and meaningful employment to First Nations people, as shown by the beautiful works featured in our report by Yorta Yorta artist D.Kerr and Palawa artist Thelma Beeton.
We are proud to have been among the earliest champions of these projects, and to have assisted them in building an evidence base from which to advocate for reform. It is a mark of their effectiveness that several have gone on to secure long-term funding. All offer proven solutions to helping women and girls live safer, healthier lives. Our report is designed to point the way to a more effective justice response that benefits the whole community.
Recent bail law reforms in Victoria are a promising step towards reducing the number of women held on remand for minor offenses. We are hopeful that these reforms, combined with the ongoing efforts of community organisations, will make a significant impact on keeping women out of the justice system.