The number of people in Victorian prisons increased by only 20 in the first quarter of 2015 after unprecedented growth in recent years, but Jesuit Social Services has warned that the current imprisonment rate is still unsustainable and systemic reform is needed.

The state’s prison population has been increasing rapidly: increasing by 12 per cent in 2014 and 43 per cent between 2009-14.

“The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ quarterly Corrective Services data, released today, shows that there was a daily average of 6,452 people in Victorian prisons in the March quarter, compared to 6,432 in the December quarter,” says Jesuit Social Services acting CEO Sally Parnell.

This slower growth in prisoner numbers is largely attributed to the Court of Appeal’s judgement guideline in December, which encouraged judges to issue community correction orders to minimise reoffending and promote rehabilitation.

“Clearly, the new guideline has had a positive impact in terms of steering people away from prison, in situations deemed appropriate by judges. There is little evidence that prison rehabilitates people for their return to the community, whereas a community correction order is often issued with requirements for an offender to complete rehabilitative treatment or programs to assist them to overcome issues, such as drug addiction, that contribute to their criminal behaviour,” says Ms Parnell.

However, Ms Parnell says that the Victorian Government’s priority must be on increasing community safety and reducing prisoner numbers even further by investing to address the drivers of crime.

“For example, we know that 42 per cent people released from prison, juvenile detention or remand exit into homelessness, and that homelessness increases people’s risks of re-offending. Providing more housing options for ex-prisoners is just one important way to make our community safer.”

“Prison is a key component of an effective criminal justice system but should only be used as a last resort. We know that a raft of policies introduced by the previous state government contributed to the enormous spike in prisoner numbers over the past five years, with no demonstrable increase in community safety,” she says.

“This government has made some promising investments into improving access to services and supports in prison, however there is still much work to be done to stop our prisoner numbers from increasing further. Strong alternatives to prison where people are provided with opportunities to become productive members of the community are what is needed to ensure we create the safer communities we all want to be a part of.”