I robbed my first house at the age of seven.
I dealt drugs, my brother was in and out of court, my father was imprisoned briefly for cannabis.
My mother was often institutionalised due to major mental health issues.
We moved from house to house with periods of homelessness in between. The houses were raided regularly for my father’s cannabis or the goods my brother and I had stolen.
Persistent exclusion from the community meant there was little protection from the steady stream of paedophiles we encountered throughout our lives. I was on my own, without a parent, by 14, using methamphetamine, and expelled from school.
We grew up resenting police, resenting a society we believed had no place for us.
At 21, I finally gained the stability to integrate with society — but not everyone is so lucky.
I went on to graduate from university with distinction, and now work a fulfilling career within advocacy and human services.
What was it that turned my life around?
I never went to prison to be “corrected”, but instead benefitted from service provision. I was rewoven back into the fabric of society.
It was my youth worker who helped with the stitching of the loose threads, the frayed ends of my life. He was the one I called in a crisis.
When I was experiencing problems with drug use, violence, or mental health relapse, he was there, ready to pick me up and get me the help I needed.
Even more than that, encouragement back into school. A voice I desperately needed to tell me of the life I was capable of.
Even today, I still have his number in my phone.
It was not fear of harsh sentencing, but mental health intervention, housing, youth services and a chance at an education that enabled me to break the cycle of offending in my family.
If only I’d had even more early intervention, it could have prevented so much harm.
Instead, the services that transformed my life are being starved of funding by a Government prioritising tax cuts and a return to surplus, whatever the public cost. Labor has voted alongside the Coalition to put more money in the pockets of the well-off, while refusing to raise payments for the most impoverished.
I grew up resenting a society I felt had no place for us. That resentment threatens to return now as we see a government, on both sides, turn its backs on the community.
We, the most marginalised — the sick, the disabled, the poor, the old, the unemployed — have no meaningful representation within this so-called “democracy”.
We are either forgotten or serve as a punching bag — the “bludgers”, the “derros” the “junkies” and the criminals.
The Government pushes a law and order rhetoric, positioning itself as “tough on crime”, but what exactly are they doing to prevent crime?
Most offenders, like myself, have trauma and mental health issues that are often unaddressed in a society that spends far too little on preventative and protective factors. Mental illness, trauma, adversity, homelessness — these all correlate with offending, yet we keep cutting vital services and housing that could help address these issues.
In Victoria where I live, the Andrews Government feels that courts should take mental illness, but not adversity, into account when sentencing. What this is really doing is preventing those with lives too chaotic to receive proper diagnosis from getting the acknowledgment and support they need and deserve.
My childhood, for example, was marked by horrors that most can’t imagine. I watched my brother being assaulted countless times, my pets being killed with an axe and thrown into a fire, violent police raids and persistent sexual abuse. Is it any wonder I developed an anxiety disorder by the age of five?
After half a lifetime of abuse, I was eligible for just 10 sessions of therapy per year.
I now try to look after my mother, who is currently facing eviction from her supported mental health facility. The landlord wants to bulldoze it to build flats, forcing over 60 vulnerable tenants to find new accommodation at short notice in an already crowded system.
Many are being forced to relocate to another town, away from their support networks. Soon, I may need to do a three-hour round-trip every time I need to visit or assist her. This uncertainty has caused a relapse in her condition, leaving me less time to focus on my own work.
Our mental health system is woefully underfunded and struggles to support the recovery of individuals and families like mine.
Increased incarceration rates show that we, as a society, are failing. It is not that some countries have fewer “baddies” than others. It’s not through “luck” or “chance” that other countries have lower rates of crime.
If imprisonment reduced crime, then we, along with the US, should have far lower rates of crime.
It is understood, even by conservative governments, that robust social services can improve a person’s chances in society and ability to contribute.
A recent report by the OECD shows that Australia has slowing social mobility. If you were born into poverty in Australia, it’s becoming increasingly likely you’ll stay there, die sooner, and possibly end up in prison along the way.
Conversely, the very wealthy are not just likely to stay wealthy, they are more likely to increase their wealth.
The lack of action on tax evasion and wealth distribution, and draining of funding to services, is restricting access to those vital resources needed to get ahead.
This, coupled with harsher sentencing, is landing more and more Australians in prison.
If the Government won’t take responsibility by taxing and investing to prevent these issues, it shares responsibility for the outcomes.
It is hiding the outcomes of its neglect in prisons — the equivalent of hiding all your mess under a rug, except this mess is people.
These people are our community. We can’t arrest our way out of social responsibility.
Tara Schultz is a community advocate, freelance writer, speaker and AOD consultant.
This article first appeared in abc.net.au By Tara Schultz