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When a woman is killed, people are stabbed at a shopping centre or a young person steals a car, the responses that follow invariably involve bringing in an “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff”. But there are eight known factors that increase the risk of offending, and they are signposted well before the edge of the cliff. Together, these factors form the ‘social determinants of justice’; addressing them early in life can result in life-saving crime prevention.

How likely someone is to end up in jail depends on eight factors, underpinned by structural causes. Being in foster care, poor education, early contact with police, unsupported mental health or cognitive disability, alcohol and drug problems, unstable housing or none at all, coming from a poor and disadvantaged neighbourhood – and being Indigenous. Tick them all off, and you’re far more likely to be incarcerated.

They are the social determinants of justice, substantiated by research by the University of NSW. Addressing these factors, and the underlying structural ‘causes of these causes’ – early abuse, racism, discrimination and poverty – with early intervention and support will materially reduce the risk of someone offending and ending up in jail.

This reflects research by Legal Aid NSW into the clients it most often helps in criminal cases. They are those with mental health, alcohol and drug problems, who have behavioural disorders, who were abused, neglected or saw violence at home as a child. Most had their first contact with Legal Aid NSW by the time they were 14 and have been homeless. Nearly half had been in foster care and 82 per cent had been suspended or expelled from school.

When the public conversation turns to crime – sparked by the tragedy in Bondi Junction, the shocking stabbing of a bishop in Wakeley, or any other terrible crime, which captures attention – it rarely turns to things which we know will do the most to reduce crime.  These are the painstaking and early social and structural interventions that can prevent these factors accumulating in a person’s life.

We have decades of evidence that collaborative early intervention saves lives and gives hope.

Significant benefits would flow to the community, and those at risk of offending and going to jail, from an overhaul of how the law, criminal justice systems, health services and social agencies work. Rather than funnel them into being managed by police, these agencies must work together to support people with mental and cognitive disability, who are born and grow up in the most disadvantaged places. This is not being soft on crime; rather it is the proven and most effective way to support the safety and wellbeing of all citizens by preventing people from ending up in this vicious cycle. It also saves money.

The good news is that there are some great examples of this approach working in action. Here are just a few:

  • Early childhood and primary school hubs for families to get help from agencies in one place for issues arising from the negative impacts of disadvantage, disability, trauma, and poor health.
  • Aboriginal-controlled community organisations leading strong education, housing, health, nutrition, and support services, which stops children going into out of home care.
  • Social workers and police working together to divert mentally unwell people from homelessness and into care and support services, preventing tragic events.

Legal Aid NSW has social workers, financial counsellors, Aboriginal field officers, and community engagement workers, to connect families to medical and support services earlier to identify, diagnose, treat and support mental health issues and concerning behaviours.

It also has specialist services for children: representing them in court, diverting them to support services, advocating for them if they are in out of home care to ensure their needs are being met, and helping them to re-engage with school.

But there is so much more we could all do. Government and non-government agencies working together as cooperative and linked community services, can implement these approaches and strategies that are proven to work.

Eileen Baldry AO, is a Professor Emerita of Criminology at UNSW and Dara Read is a Senior Lawyer at Legal Aid NSW. This article reflects the views of the authors, not Legal Aid.