Diverting people experiencing housing insecurity out of the criminal justice system

People experiencing homelessness are overrepresented within the criminal justice system, often for offences directly related to their experience of poverty. Access to social, health and legal supports is critical to divert people from the justice system as early as possible.

How we can divert people experiencing housing insecurity out of the criminal justice system

We know that people experiencing homelessness are overrepresented within the criminal justice system, often for offences directly related to their experience of poverty. For those people that do end up in the criminal justice system, access to social, health and legal supports that address the underlying causes of offending is critical to reduce recidivism and divert them out of the justice system as early as possible.

Drawing on 20 years as Victoria’s specialist community legal service for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, we see three key opportunities to improve criminal justice system outcomes for Victorians facing housing insecurity:

Recommendation 1: Create a specialised Homeless Court

The creation of a specialist Homeless Court in Victoria provides an important opportunity to engage in a therapeutic justice approach and intervene earlier to successfully exit people experiencing homelessness from the criminal justice system into appropriate support services.

A centralised list running out of Melbourne Magistrates’ Court would allow dedicated prosecutors, Magistrates, support services and defence lawyers to work together in holistically addressing the underlying causes of offending. This would directly help more homeless Victorians to make earlier exits from the criminal justice system into secure housing with supports, and reduce the risk of reoffending.

Recommendation 2: Provide greater access to the Criminal Justice Diversion Program

The Criminal Justice Diversion Program (Diversion) provides people a therapeutic setting for Victorians with complex needs to appropriately address minor offences, which are often directly linked to their experiences of housing insecurity.

Diversion is a legislative scheme that empowers a court to deal with a criminal charge by ‘diverting’ the matter from the criminal justice system, avoiding a finding of guilt. However, as it currently stands, police have complete discretion to consent to Diversion and there is no opportunity for the Magistrates’ Court or defence lawyers to intervene. This means that for many people who should be eligible for Diversion, they just don’t get access to it and end up with criminal records that impact on their future employment prospects. For these reasons, the Criminal Procedure Act 2009 (Vic) should be amended, so that the Magistrates’ Court determines whether Diversion is appropriate.

Recommendation 3: Increase access to integrated legal services

Increased access to integrated legal services also has a critical role to play in improving the accessibility, effectiveness and fairness of the criminal justice system.

Many Victorians who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness require intensive, client-centred and multi-disciplinary support. In this context, service models need to be responsive to the range of different social, health, financial and other needs presented by people experiencing homelessness.

That’s why Justice Connect has developed an integrated practice model with a specialist criminal lawyer and social worker, recognising that diverting people away from the justice system requires wrap-around legal, social, health and education-based responses. 

For people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, having an ongoing social worker assisting them with their justice system interactions can reduce the emergence of new legal issues and increase the potential for positive and sustainable outcomes for community members.

Read our submissions

See our submissions related to preventing the criminalisation of homelessness


Preventing the criminalisation of homelessness

Homelessness is a complex issue that requires systems-level change.

We challenge and change laws that unfairly impact people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

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