With the doom of exams impending I’ve found myself questioning exactly why I decided to embark on a law degree. Well this week, I attended an event, which brought me back to reality and reminded me exactly why I’m here.
As part of Law Week, the Woman and Mentoring program (WAM) ran a seminar to promote their services and discuss the issues facing women who are involved in the justice system. The program seeks to pair first-time female offenders with a female mentor, who can support and guide them through the system.
The panellists speaking at this event ranged from former Attorney-General Rob Hulls, to magistrate Lesley Fleming, to Dean McWhirter, the Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner. What became very clear from their discussion was that this program not only helps women at a basic level to navigate what is a confusing and intimidating system, but that it also addresses the broader issues of domestic and family violence, the cyclical nature of incarceration, and the strain that repeat offenders place on our justice system
The program is small. Over the last few years, off a small budget and all volunteer staff, they have helped around 37 women. However, their statistics show that of these 37 women, 95% did not re-offend, and 97% avoided jail time. These are impressive statistics, even for such a small program. Factoring in that the cost of housing a prison inmate for 12 months is over $90,000, the cost-benefit analysis comes out pretty positive.
In discussing the importance of this program for women, all of the panellists stressed that the compound issues that instigate offending needed to be understood and addressed. They outlined that the public generally associate people with their crime, rather seeking to understand why the crime had been committed and how it could have been stopped. Rob Hulls called this the 'collective bypass of compassion, when victims become perpetrators'. He stated that generally, these women come from backgrounds of foster homes, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues and homelessness, but that somehow, none of these factors were considered relevant as soon as they made a mistake.
A mentor and mentee spoke at the beginning of the seminar, and their conversation highlighted to me just how important this program is. One example that stood out to me involved the participant of the program being required to give evidence as a witness. Through the mentor’s help and guidance had done so via video link, rather than in the court room. The participant found the whole ordeal of giving evidence very stressful and overwhelming, but with the support of her mentor she had been able to do it in a manner which gave her more control over the situation. The option of giving evidence via video link may have never been presented to the participant, and as someone new to the justice system, she wouldn’t have known to ask.
What was incredibly interesting was that all of the panellists agreed that while more work needed to be done, the attitudes amongst politicians, the judiciary and the police force were changing for the better. Assistant Commissioner Dean McWhirter said Victoria Police had made a conscious cultural shift towards providing more support to women in need, and had utilised WAM when they could.
WAM is hoping to expand their program—they have identified areas in which they can viably extend the program, and are hoping to start in Shepparton soon. In assisting women in dealing with their first engagement with the justice system, the program creates genuine change, and has the potential to create a cultural shift in society’s understanding of what it means to break the law.
I found the seminar pretty inspiring, here I was presented with people who were trying to create change and were doing it within the justice system, from varied backgrounds all connected with the law. This is why I chose law, I believe it has the capacity to put me in a position where I can help create change, even if it's just one woman, in one circumstance, who just needs a bit of help.
If anyone is interested in working with WAM or donating to the program, head to womenandmentoring.org.au or call them on 9417 2210.