Justice system’s failure to think about disability can result in years of jail and homelessness, royal fee hears

The trap of fines and a rigid court system that ignores disability can lead to years of imprisonment and homelessness, according to research.

Justen Thomas, a 43-year-old Aboriginal man from NSW, has heard of the Royal Commission on the Disabled, whom he slept poorly at a young age after running away from a children’s home.

He said he was charged for things like trespassing, which escalated to jail time.

“I couldn’t handle my fines so they found a reason to lock me up,” he said.

“I was often taken into custody because I had no place to go.”

He lived without a fixed address for more than a decade, cycling back and forth between the streets, boarding houses and the prison.

When dealing with the courts, he said he often did not understand things like bail or when to appear, which resulted in arrest warrants being issued.

Mr. Thomas said that his disability meant that he had difficulty making decisions.

He also has epilepsy and told the hearing that sometimes his medication would be taken away in prison.

“Getting back into society after being in prison has always been a struggle,” he said.

Things turned when he met an attorney from the Shopfront Youth Legal Center who reminded him of when to be in court and explain orders to him, the commissioners were told.

He was last jailed in 2004 and said another attorney for the Intellectual Disability Rights Service helped waive the fines, which had increased to about $ 8,000.

Mr. Thomas is now an advocate for people with a disability and recommended that the Cognitive Impairment Distraction program be expanded.

The service, which helps people with disabilities deal with complex and stressful legal proceedings, ran in NSW between 2017 and 2020 before funding was cut, the Royal Commission on Disabled People said Wednesday.

“It also helps people with disabilities reach their potential instead of seeing them go to jail and lock them up,” said Thomas.

The CIDP was a pilot in two jurisdictions, and the NSW Department for Communities and Justice Secretary Michael Coutts-Trotter told the hearing that the goal was to lead to a diversionary model that could be expanded.

“We had planned that this should be done through the normal budget decision-making process that was suspended in the wake of the COVID crisis in 2020,” he said.

“So we had a way to get closer to that, but COVID, to be honest, wiped that out.”

The challenge is not “to find worthwhile approaches to end the cycle created by the criminalization of disability,” said Chairman Ronald Sackville in his closing statement.

“The difficulty is ensuring that effective programs are not put in place, supported and adequately funded in the short term,” he said.

The royal commission heard from 33 witnesses for eight days as it dealt with indefinite detention and the “entry and exit” of people with disabilities from prison.

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