This is particularly so for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People with Disabilities according to researchers at the University of Melbourne and University of New South Wales.
Researchers have collaborated with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency to deal with the support needs of accused persons with mental disabilities.
The Unfitness to Plead and Indefinite Detention of Persons with Cognitive Impairments project is about providing support to people with disabilities in the criminal justice system to prevent their indefinite detention.
The researchers recently gave evidence to a Senate Committee Inquiry into the Indefinite Detention of People with Cognitive Impairment in Darwin last week.
The research team, which includes a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and advocates, have just concluded a six-month trial of supports for accused persons with disabilities when they reach the court system.
Professor Kerry Arabena, a chief investigator on the project, says Indigenous people with disabilities are clearly over-represented in the criminal justice system.
“It’s clear we need to change to law to prevent indefinite detention, but we also need to make sure the supports are available on the ground. People with disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system need to be connected to appropriate support,” she said.
“This is especially the case for young people with disabilities in contact with the criminal justice system. We should be intervening as early as possible in a child’s life to identify and address disabilities, and support their parents to care for their child as much as possible.
It is a travesty that in 2016 we can have over representation in the criminal justice system because we haven¹t prevented or addressed early health, developmental vulnerabilities or intergenerational trauma in the first 2 years of life. We do not need prison solutions for health issues.” Professor Arabena said.
In many places, the right support is unavailable. Jody Barney, one of the National Advisory Panel members for the project is a leading Aboriginal Disability consultant. She has assisted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities in the criminal justice system all over Australia.
“The Unfitness to Plead Project tries to make sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities not only have the right communication access and supports but the physical presence of an advocate and interpreter to assist their understanding of the justice system.”
“While the project doesn’t focus on young people, we have identified the unmet needs of the young people with disabilities during the course of the project. The work needs to be extended to include youth and reduce the recidivism of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in detention.” she said.
Another member of the advisory panel, Ms Elizabeth McEntyre, a criminal justice social worker has conducted research with Aboriginal communities in NSW and NT on Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system.
”Better education and information are needed for police, teachers, lawyers, magistrates, health, corrections, disability and community service providers regarding understanding and working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men with cognitive impairment and complex support needs, ” she said.
The researchers call for a suite of reforms to ensure accused persons with disabilities get the support they need to access justice on an equal basis with others.
Mr Lenny Clarke, a First Persons Disability Network representative and one of the project’s advisors says that people with disabilities are often subject to prejudice, discrimination and exclusion.
“Most people don’t understand disability and or don’t feel affected – for them it is a case of ‘That’s other peoples and families problems.’ “
The project team recommends that it should be mandatory for all sections of Law enforcement agencies and administrators of the judicial system to participate in extensive training and awareness programs on disability.
Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment must focus on solutions
A major national inquiry into the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must focus on identifying tangible solutions that address the underlying causes of imprisonment, says the Change the Record (CTR) Coalition.
In welcoming today’s announcement of an Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) inquiry into the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the coalition of peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, human rights and legal organisations has said it is essential that the inquiry focus on practical measures that invest in and strengthen communities.
CTR Co-Chair Shane Duffy said, “For a long time we have been calling for the Federal Government to take a leadership role on these issues, and so we welcome the Turnbull Government beginning to step up to the plate”.
“This year marks 25 years since the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), but our people continue to experience imprisonment and violence at crisis rates.
The new ALRC inquiry offers an important opportunity to shine a comprehensive light on these issues at a national level, and identify tangible actions for all levels of government” said Mr Duffy. At the time the RCIADIC report was handed down Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were seven times more likely to be in prison, now in 2016 that figure has risen to 13 times.
At the same time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are experiencing high rates of violence, being 34 times more likely to be hospitalised for family violence related assault.
“We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates, and experience of violence, are strongly linked to social and economic disadvantage and so the inquiry must include a focus on early intervention, prevention and diversion programs” said Mr Duffy.
Co-Chair Antoinette Braybrook said, “Whilst the announcement of an ALRC inquiry to examine the factors leading to the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is welcome, it is essential that the inquiry also consider issues relating to the prevention of family violence and reducing barriers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims/survivors of family violence to access quality, holistic, culturally safe legal services and supports.”
“It is also critical that the Terms of Reference for the inquiry are developed in close consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies, and those who are members of Change the Record. To ensure that the inquiry has a meaningful outcome, all levels of Government must commit to implementing the recommendations in full.”
“The Federal Government should also take immediate steps to highlight its commitment to improving justice outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including by setting meaningful national justice targets through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and committing to review the implementation of RCIADIC” said Ms Braybrook.