Justice system's failure to consider disability can lead to years of jail and homelessness, royal commission hears

The royal commission has heard from 33 witnesses over eight days during hearings exploring indefinite detention and the "cycling in and out" of jail by people with disability.

Justen Thomas (left) speaking during public hearing 11 on Thursday.

Justen Thomas (left) speaking during public hearing 11 on Thursday. Source: Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability

The trap of punitive fines and a rigid court system that fails to make allowances for disability can lead to years of jail and homelessness, an inquiry has heard.

Justen Thomas, a 43-year-old Aboriginal man from NSW, has told a hearing of the disability royal commission he slept rough from an early age after running away from a children's home.

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

"I couldn't deal with my fines, so they found a reason to lock me up," he said.

"A lot of times I have been remanded in custody because I didn't have a place to go."

He lived without a fixed address for more than a decade, cycling between the streets, boarding houses and jail, commissioners were told.

When dealing with the courts, he said he often didn't understand things like bail conditions or when he was due to appear, which led to warrants being issued.

Mr Thomas explained his disability meant he had trouble making decisions.

He also has epilepsy and told the hearing that sometimes his medication would be taken from him in jail.

"It's always been a struggle to get back to society after being in prison," he said.

Things turned around when he met a lawyer from Shopfront Youth Legal Centre who would remind him when he needed to be in court and explain orders to him, commissioners were told.

He was last sent to prison in 2004 and said another lawyer from Intellectual Disability Rights Service helped waive the fines that had built up to about $8,000.

Mr Thomas is now an advocate for people with a disability and recommended the Cognitive Impairment Diversion Program be expanded.

The service, helping people with disability deal with complex and stressful court proceedings, ran between 2017 and 2020 in NSW before funding was cut, the disability royal commission was told on Wednesday.

"It also helps people with a disability live to their potential instead of seeing them go to jail and locking them away," Mr Thomas said.

The CIDP ran as a pilot in two court jurisdictions, and NSW Department of Communities and Justice secretary Michael Coutts-Trotter told the hearing the aim was for it to lead to a diversion model that could be scaled up.

"We had planned for that to happen through the usual process of State Budget decision-making, which was suspended amid the COVID crisis in 2020," he said.

"So we had a way to approach it, but COVID obliterated that, to be honest."

The challenge is not finding "worthwhile approaches to end the cycle created by the criminalisation of disability", chair Ronald Sackville said in his closing statement.

"The difficulty is to ensure that effective programs are introduced, supported and properly funded, and not just in the short term," he said.

The royal commission heard from 33 witnesses over eight days as it explored indefinite detention and the "cycling in and out" of jail by people with disability.

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4 min read
Published 25 February 2021 at 9:03pm
Source: AAP, SBS