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Abstract

Consistent with other high income countries in the West, prisons are being built or expanded in every Australian state and territory to house increasing numbers of prisoners. Despite decreasing crime victimisation rates in Australia, incarceration rates have doubled over the last thirty years. Australia’s use of imprisonment has major economic and social equity costs, especially given the over-representation of Indigenous Australians and other socially disadvantaged groups in prison. Evidence increasingly points to the limitation of incarceration as a tool for effective offender rehabilitation suggesting that a new policy agenda on responses to offending is warranted. Yet, public opinion is generally assessed and perceived to hold punitive views towards offenders. Such views are typically assessed using non-deliberative opinion polls. Research and perceived public opinion of this kind can be an obstacle to policy reform and a justification for prison expansion. This paper reports on a project that uses a Citizens Jury approach in three Australian cities. The aim of these Citizens Juries was to provide an opportunity for citizens to critically engage in and deliberate on the issues that underlie offending, and society’s responses to it. This paper provides substantive insight into the considered views of members of the public on issues of criminal justice and makes recommendations about the value of the Citizens Jury method to explore public opinion on criminal justice issues. This has broader implications for the use of deliberative methodologies in other highly politicised public policy fields.

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