Individuals with cognitive disability face lack of justice system assist

Funding for a major justice advocacy service in NSW will expire in June

An open letter signed by 70 eminent Australians calls on the New South Wales government to commit to implementing a nationwide distraction program for people with cognitive disabilities facing criminal charges.

The letter, signed by people from across the social, academic and legal sectors, notes that the overrepresentation and disadvantage of people with cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system has long been recognized.

It says that the 2021 state budget must contain the necessary funds to support people with cognitive disabilities in dealing with the police and courts, and to redirect suspected criminals from the courts to support the National Disability Insurance System and other services.

This is because the NSW government’s funding for the nationwide Justice Advocacy Service (JAS), which helps people with cognitive disabilities exercise their rights and understand what is going on in dealing with the justice system, expires in June this year.

The program is run by the Intellectual Disability Rights Service (IDRS), which also ran the Cognitive Impairment Diversion Program (CIDP), a service that redirected people from prison to the support they need. Funding for CIDP stopped in June 2020.

Jim Simpson, a senior counsel for the Intellectual Disability Council (CID), told Pro Bono News that these programs have played an invaluable role in leveling the scales so that people have a fair chance at justice.

“The [CIDP] especially proven that you can help people [the justice system] and the right support so that they are much less likely to get into trouble and lead a more positive life, ”said Simpson.

“Without these programs, people will continue to end up in jail far more often, where they are at risk of abuse.

“And we know that it is likely that they will get out of prison and be offended again by negative role models in prison and by the transition from the very structured life in prison to the very unstructured life of the community.”

CID and IDRS, together with the Justice Reform Initiative and the First Peoples Disability Network, are calling for guaranteed long-term funding for the JAS program and a commitment from the government to introduce a nationwide diversion program like the CIDP.

Eileen Baldry, professor of criminology at UNSW, said NSW must take the opportunity to continue “groundbreaking programs” to assist people with cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system.

She said her team’s research showed programs like JAS and CIDP lower incarceration rates for disability and relapse.

“It is critical that they be cost-effective in the long run (across a person’s life) because they lower the cost of all human and justice services and increase the ability of people with disabilities to live safely and supported in our community.” Said Baldry.

These calls for long-term funding have also been made by more than 12,000 one signatories Online petition.

The petition describes the story of former JAS participant Justen Thomas, a 43-year-old Aboriginal with intellectual disabilities and epilepsy who was repeatedly jailed for unpaid fines.

He explained the value such programs could have for people with intellectual disabilities who are trapped in the justice system.

“Getting the right help changed my life. It means belonging somewhere, ”said Thomas.

“I haven’t been in jail since 2004. It’s been 16 or 17 years and I have no plans to go back.”

NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman told the Sydney Morning Herald in February his department considered the results of an independent assessment of the JAS and would consider additional diversion programs as part of the budget process.

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