Cancelling the disability pension for inmates will drive up recidivism

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The following article is authored by Helen Fielder-Gill, coordinator of Samaritans post release services. It was originally written and published on Croakey.org.

If someone were to hold a mirror up to Australia, how would we want to see ourselves? What values would be shining the brightest?

Surely we would see a country rich in many ways, and one of the proudest features would be our wealth of benevolence?

Australians give in excess of $12 billion to charity each year. Almost one third of the population has volunteered their time in the last 12 months.

What’s most striking at the moment is the groundswell of community and social sector support for those doing it tough.

There’s the campaign gaining traction to raise the rate of Newstart, which has recently been labelled by community groups, advocates, and even from conservative economist Chris Richardson, as grossly inadequate and unnecessarily cruel.

There’s the affordable housing campaign reminding us that everybody deserves a home, and cities around the country are signing pledges to end homelessness – like this one in Newcastle. And that’s just a few.

These campaigns are reflecting a clear message from Australians: we want better essential services for our most vulnerable people.

With such compassionate community sentiment, it was a shock announcement in the Federal Budget last month that a short-sighted policy change would come into effect next year: for the almost 50% of people in our prison system who have a disability, those with a Disability Support Pension (DSP) will have it cancelled if they are imprisoned – or even on remand – for longer than 3 months.

When someone is assessed and approved for a DSP they receive it for life; eligibility requires a person has a “permanent and diagnosed disability or medical condition”. People who have a DSP and end up in jail were granted it for a reason, and that reason doesn’t change when they are sent to jail.

All Centrelink payments, including the DSP, are suspended while someone is behind bars. However, under the current system, a person with a disability who finishes their sentence within two years can come out and resume payments straight away. This means they have a small income to allow them to find a place to live and pay for essentials like food and transport. The stricter rules will mean that after three months of imprisonment, the benefit is cancelled and a person must reapply after they exit prison. Applications have been known to take up to 12 months.

Samaritans commented recently about the revolving door many people are caught in as they go back and forth between prison and homelessness. Once enacted, what this policy change will do is push people leaving jail into a cycle of disadvantage that starts with homelessness and ends in reoffending.

Currently, when a person leaves prison they are given a train ticket, a half Newstart Centrelink payment and the clothes and belongings that were confiscated upon entry. People present to Samaritans every week having been released from jail with no place to live and feeling a sense of desperation. They are often disconnected from family and their only acquaintances are people they knew from when they were committing crime. Where do we expect them to go when they are released with nothing?

At Samaritans, we see the profoundly negative effect that a lack of support has on someone leaving prison.

Samaritans post release programs have been running for more than 25 years. One in particular is an intensive program run by volunteers who help those living in dedicated short-term accommodation with anything from applying for a birth certificate and Centrelink to looking for work and long-term housing options.

Unsurprisingly, people who are supported through Samaritans post release programs are much less likely to reoffend. The recidivism rate for NSW is over 40% while the rate for those who’ve completed Samaritans programs is as low as 14%.

Reducing recidivism can be done. Why are we further punishing people instead of looking more closely at this problem? We already know that people with a disability are vastly over-represented in Australia’s prison system.

Here are three important steps that could be taken immediately:

  1. Don’t reduce the Disability Support Pension suspension timeframe. The only effect this will have is to drive people further into desperation and the likelihood of reoffending. This will overburden other systems as people fall back into crime and homelessness.
  2. Invest in programs that address the drivers of social disadvantage. It is unacceptable that people with a disability, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, are disproportionately represented in our prisons.
  3. Overhaul the system for people exiting prison. We must make sure people have the essentials they need when they come out of jail, such as birth certificates and other important documentation, Centrelink and housing applications, and a package from the National Disability Insurance Scheme if it’s required.

There are solutions to reducing recidivism. We must simply remember that it is possible – and mutually beneficial – to support people to live a fulfilling life after prison.