Prison 'a trap' for people with disability

There are calls for an urgent end to the practice of sending intellectually disabled people to jail if they have not been found guilty of a crime.  

There are calls for an urgent end to the practice of sending intellectually disabled people to jail if they have not been found guilty of a crime.

(Transcript from World News Radio)

Australia's Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes says up to 30 people are currently in jail despite being unfit to make a plea.

Mr Innes says prison is not the appropriate place for someone with a disability.

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Rosie Anne Fulton, who was born with foetal alcohol syndrome, has spent the past 18 months in a Western Australian jail for driving offences.

This is despite the fact she did not enter a plea because of her intellectual impairment.

Her situation is not an isolated one.

Graeme Innes the Disability Commissioner with the Human Rights Commission, says he's aware of many similar cases.

He's calling for an urgent audit of people with intellectual disabilities who are in jail.

"We were informally advised that there are 20 to 30 people, mainly Aboriginal people, with a disability, who have not been convicted of a crime yet who spend time in prison in Australia. Rosie Anne Fulton is the second of those that we're specifically aware of. Marlin Noble is the first in WA and he spent ten years in prison without being convicted of a crime so we think this is a very serious situation."

The Aboriginal Disability Justice Campaign's Patrick McGee says people with an intellectual disability often end up in jail because laws are structured to allow it to happen.

"We have legislation: it's called Mental Impairment Legislation. When a person with a cognitive impairment comes before court, and the court is aware that there's something amiss with their cognitive status, that triggers an assessment. If the assessment finds that they in fact have an intellectual disability or an acquired brain injury or foetal alcohol syndrome, what happens then is that there is a court definition that they cannot plead; that is, they do not understand whether they are guilty or innocent, and an alternative pathway is provided. That's what happened to Rosie Anne in Western Australia when she was charged with those minor offences. And unfortunately Western Australia, like the Northern Territory, does not have any resources, that is accommodation, where treatment or significant benefit is provided, and so she had to go to prison."

Mr McGee says often judges are placed in a situation where they have to send someone to jail because there are no other options.

"For many Indigenous people with cognitive impairment, there is no opportunity or option for them to either return to the community or return to their family for very many complex reasons or they may not have family or community to return to. So they are not able to live independently in the community, safely, and so there is nowhere for them to exit to, and so they get stuck in jail."

Most of the people with intellectual disabilities who are in jail are in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Western Australia's Chief Justice has said he wants the laws changed so that people who are unfit to plead cannot be held indefinitely.

He says they should not stay in jail any longer than if they'd been convicted.

But Commissioner Innes says that is not a satisfactory answer.

"That's not a view I share. If a person has been determined unfit to plead, then by definition they have not been found guilty of a crime. We only lock people up in jails when they are guilty of crimes unless they are on remand whilst that's been determined. But once that determination is made either that a person is unfit to plead or that a person is guilty, we release them and we support them in the community if that's required. And that's what we should do for people with a disability. There's no basis for leaving people in jail if they have not been convicted of a crime."

Source World News Australia

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