People with cognitive disability face loss of justice system support


With funding for a key advocacy service in NSW set to expire in June, people with cognitive disability face loss of justice system support. By Luke Michael, for Pro Bono Australia (reproduced with permission). 

The story of former Justice Advocacy Service participant Justen Thomas is detailed in an online petition with over 16,000 signatories.

An open letter signed by 70 eminent Australians is calling on the New South Wales government to commit to rolling out a state-wide diversion program for people with cognitive disability facing criminal charges.    

The letter – whose signatories include people across the social sector, academia and the legal space – notes that the overrepresentation and disadvantage experienced by people with cognitive disability in the criminal justice system has long been recognised.

It says the 2021 state budget must include necessary funding to support people with cognitive disability in their dealings with police and the courts, and help divert alleged offenders from the courts into support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme and other services.      

This comes as NSW government funding for the state-wide Justice Advocacy Service – which helps people with cognitive disability exercise their rights and understand what’s happening when dealing with the justice system – is set to expire in June this year.

The program is run by Intellectual Disability Rights Service, which also ran the Cognitive Impairment Diversion Programme, a service that worked to divert people away from prison and into the supports they need. Funding for Cognitive Impairment Diversion Programme ceased in June 2020.  

Jim Simpson, a senior advocate at the Council for Intellectual Disability, told Pro Bono News these programs have played an invaluable role in levelling the scales so people get a fair chance of justice.      

“The [Cognitive Impairment Diversion Programme] in particular proved that you can help people out of [the justice system] and into proper supports so they are much less likely to be in trouble and more likely to lead positive lives,” Simpson said.

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

“And we know the likelihood is that they’ll emerge from jail more likely to reoffend through negative role models in jail and through going from the very structured life of jail to the very unstructured life of the community.” 

The Council for Intellectual Disability and Intellectual Disability Rights Service, along with the Justice Reform Initiative and the First Peoples Disability Network, are calling for guaranteed long-term funding for the Justice Advocacy Service program and a government commitment to roll out a state-wide diversion program like the Council for Intellectual Disability.

Open letter signatory Eileen Baldry, a professor of criminology at UNSW, said New South Wales must take the opportunity to continue “groundbreaking programs” of support for people with cognitive disability in the criminal justice system.

She said her team’s research showed programs like the Justice Advocacy Service and Cognitive Impairment Diversion Programme reduced disability incarceration rates and recidivism.

“Crucially, in the long run (over a person’s life) they are cost effective because they reduce the costs to all human and justice services and increase the capacity of persons with disability to live safely and in a supported way, in our community,” Baldry said.

These calls for long-term funding have also been supported by more than 12,000 signatories to an online petition

The petition details the story of former Justice Advocacy Service participant Justen Thomas, a 43-year-old Aboriginal man with an intellectual disability and epilepsy who repeatedly ended up in prison over unpaid fines. 

He explained the value that these kinds of programs could have on people with an intellectual disability caught up in the justice system. 

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

“I haven’t been in prison now since 2004. That is like 16 or 17 years and I don’t intend to go back either.” 

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman told the Sydney Morning Herald in February that his department was considering the findings of an independent evaluation of the JAS and would consider additional diversion programs as part of the budget process. 

Sign the petition to save the Justice Advocacy Service

This piece was written by Luke Michael, for Pro Bono Australia. It has been reproduced with permission.