Diversion and ‘what works’ in post-release: Improving the evidence

Dr Ruth McCausland 1*, Dr Mindy Sotiri 2, Ms Alison Churchill 3, Professor Eileen Baldry 4

School of Social Sciences, UNSW
Community Restorative Centre
Community Restorative Centre
School of Social Sciences, UNSW

‘What gets measured gets managed’: The problem with evaluation of post-release diversionary program

*corresponding author: ruth.mccausland@unsw.edu.au

There is widespread acknowledgement that diverting people into appropriate services and support upon release from prison can reduce their likelihood of reincarceration. Approaches to diversion in Australia have been influenced by various criminological concepts, but are generally premised on the notion that certain vulnerable groups are over-represented in prisons due to factors such as drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness and cognitive impairment, and that diverting people away from the criminal justice system into appropriate therapeutic programs can reduce their offending. Governments are increasingly funding post-release programs based on a risk/needs/responsivity model, focused on individual behavioural change in the first few months after release from prison. The effectiveness of such programs is measured by recidivism rates as recorded by local court data, with randomised controlled trials considered the ‘gold standard’ in evaluation in this area.

At a time when Australia’s prison population is at its largest on record and continuing to grow, this paper will posit that evaluation of post-release programs – and indeed, the notion of diversion itself – requires more robust interrogation, nuanced metrics and consideration of broader policy contexts to better serve its stated purpose. Qualitative research conducted with policy makers, crime prevention program managers and evaluators will be reported on that suggests that post-release diversion as it is conceptualised and implemented in Australia is adhered to existing structures of penality, perpetuating rather than reducing the over-representation of vulnerable groups in prison. Narrow quantifiable measures of impact emerge as not just a mechanism of reporting, but as determining policy. What is measurable not only gets managed, it has become what is perceived to matter. This paper will conclude by proposing alternative approaches to diversion and evaluation that could better respond to the needs of vulnerable people with complex support needs leaving prison.

Best practice in community-based reintegration

In 2013 Corrective Services NSW committed close to $10 million over three years to fund community sector organisations to provide ‘evidence based’ post-release services.  The new raft of programs differentiated itself from previously funded projects in terms of scope and geographic reach, but more significantly in terms of attachment to a particular (RNR/criminogenic needs) theoretical model.  Similarly, in June this year, again in NSW, a new round of justice funding was announced targeting recidivism amongst people who cycle in and out of prison frequently and for short periods of time. Once again, government has specified that the community sector organisations providing the service must adopt an ‘evidence based’ criminogenic needs approach.  While NSW serves as a recent case-study of an enthusiastic adopter of this model, this is a trend that has been replicated in many jurisdictions.

This paper will challenge the premise that RNR and criminogenic needs research offer up any significant ‘evidence’ in terms of ‘what works’ in community-based reintegration, particularly when working with populations with multiple and complex needs. This paper will also offer (from the perspective of a service provider) an overview of what being funded to prioritise this approach (ahead of more holistic models) actually looks like on the ground in terms of the pragmatics of service delivery.

Drawing on findings from a recently completed Churchill Fellowship research trip into ‘best-practice’ in community based reintegration programs in the US and the UK, and data analysis of the outcomes of over 300 clients who participated in a (no-longer-funded) holistic long-term program run through the Community Restorative Centre in Sydney, this paper will argue framing (and funding) reintegration programs only in terms of individual rehabilitation is deeply problematic.  It proposes a best–practice model that places structural predictors of recidivism at the heart of service delivery design.

Imprisonment, Reintegration and the NDIS: The key challenges of providing comprehensive post-release services to people with disabilities

There is growing evidence around the significant proportion of people in prison who have cognitive disabilities (intellectual disability, acquired brain injury, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). However people with cognitive disabilities who are at risk of criminal justice system involvement or who are already entrenched in the criminal justice system will have even less access to specialist community-based services under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) than they have in the past. From the experience of managing a specialist post-release service, it is apparent that without a specific focus on meeting the unique needs of this group, they are more likely to be managed in criminal justice system settings (primarily prisons) rather than supported under the NDIS. While the funding for the NDIS is a Commonwealth responsibility, the financial burden for providing services to this group will ultimately remain with state governments, particularly with the justice system.

This presentation will unpack some of the key challenges in terms of post-release service delivery within the existing parameters of the NDIS for this population. This includes the separation of disability support needs and other support needs when developing funded support packages, the absence of involvement in the NDIS of key agencies of criminal justice, and the complex task of enabling choice and control for populations in the post-release context who have so regularly spent their lives without access to either.

A holistic, community-based approach to post-release diversion for people with complex support needs

Policy and legislative changes over the past 20 years have had negative and disproportionate effects on Indigenous persons, women and those with mental and cognitive disability who are poor, disadvantaged and racialised, thereby increasing their rates of imprisonment. It is apparent that the failure to adequately support vulnerable people in the community has lead to the criminalisation of certain groups and contributed to prisons bursting with people with multiple diagnoses and disabilities, conceptualised here as ‘complex support needs’ created by poor system and service design. However there is a severe lack of appropriate rehabilitative and therapeutic options available for these vulnerable groups post-release. This paper will report on an innovative methodological study involving quantitative and qualitative investigation of the post-release experiences of people with mental and cognitive disability, with a particular focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The period after release from prison is a particularly vulnerable and difficult time for people with disability. There is a clear imperative based on research and evaluation in this field for the provision of immediate and intensive support, especially with regard to specialist long-term accommodation, wrap around services and case management. Yet with the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), there is a concern that there may be even less support for many disadvantaged people with disability after release from prison. Drawing on national and international research, a holistic, community-based model for post-release diversion for people with complex support needs will be articulated, highlighting the particular considerations in relation to Indigenous women and men in regional and remote areas of Australia. The presentation will conclude with recommendations setting out the principles, policies and programs required to respond to the imprisonment of some of the most vulnerable members of our community.


Ruth McCausland is Research Fellow and Eileen Baldry is Professor of Criminology in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW. Mindy Sotiri is Program Director and Alison Churchill is CEO at the Community Restorative Centre.

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