Rates of imprisonment have consistently risen in Australia over the past few decades. In addition to the significant economic cost, research shows that prison is not an effective deterrent and may itself lead to criminal behaviour. Community-based options show promise in relation to recidivism reduction and cost effectiveness.

In Victoria, the Community Corrections Order (CCO) is a sentencing option that enables people to serve their sanction in the community, with access to treatment or other rehabilitative support.

Funded by the Victorian Legal Services Board, Jesuit Social Services has conducted research aimed at improving understanding of the needs and experiences of people on CCOs. The study, based on survey data collected from 200 men and women on CCOs in Melbourne’s west metropolitan region, as well as in-depth interviews with 20 participants, explores how the system can better support rehabilitative pathways. Implementation challenges are identified that potentially affect rehabilitative impact and there has been scant research attention to this area of the justice system.

The findings demonstrate the intersection of justice system involvement with disadvantage across a range of measures including low levels of educational attainment, economic exclusion, financial distress, social isolation, physical and mental health issues. Over half of the 200 people who took part in the study reported that they were unemployed and seeking work, and approximately two thirds of these had been unemployed for more than one year.

Though many participants described having actively taken steps themselves to make positive change, unfortunately, there was little evidence to suggest participants were receiving adequate professional support to address self-identified needs or to improve their inclusion in the community. Very few reported gaining assistance to overcome key barriers to employment, including the stigma associated with having a justice record.

Participants commonly described community work as time-wasting, demeaning and with few links to community benefits. The findings of this study highlight ongoing challenges associated with timely provision of appropriate programs and services targeting this cohort, but also the potential value of investment in this area.

Implications for practice are explored, highlighting the importance of the following key elements of community work: placement in productive, skill-building and valued roles; opportunity for interaction with community members and pro-social interactions with supervisors and others; and individual or small group placements. Broader service features include relationship-based engagement; holistic, long-term and tailored support; and emphasis on building confidence and motivation.

As part of the research process, consultation was undertaken to strengthen communication, collaboration and information sharing between key stakeholders in local government, education, justice, and related sectors – with a focus on improving outcomes for people in the justice system in the City of Brimbank. The findings also bear consideration in relation to planning, policy, program development and practice in other contexts.