The justice system is underpinned by the principle that the law applies equally and fairly to every person.
However, people with disability, particularly cognitive disability (for example, intellectual disability or mental illness), experience exclusion from the justice system. They are often unaware of their rights and lack advocacy supports to help them access the system. When interacting with the justice system, laws, policies and processes often disadvantage them.
OPA advocates for and directly supports people in contact with the justice system through our volunteer programs and Advocacy and Guardianship Program. More broadly, OPA advocates for systemic change to better support people with disability in contact with the justice system. We use opportunities presented by government inquiries and consultation processes to advocate for improvements to laws, policies, practices, and the service system to better protect the rights of people with disabilities involved in and at risk of repeated contact with the justice system.
Areas of action
People with cognitive impairment (such as intellectual disability and mental illness) are over-represented in the criminal justice system both as victims of crime and offenders. Complex circumstances including multiple levels of disadvantage contribute to their disproportionate involvement in the system.
People with disability who are victims of crime or witnesses to crime should be able to access greater support when seeking remedy through the police and court systems. There is an unmet need for support systems and diversion programs aimed at offenders and people at risk of repeat offending with cognitive impairments.
The over-representation of people with disabilities in the criminal justice system, the need for early intervention programs, and improving integrated service delivery to meet the diverse needs of people with disabilities were raised in recent submissions to Government.
For more information, see Submission to the Victorian Government consultation: Practical lessons, fair consequences – Improving diversion for young people in Victoria and Submission to the Inquiry into access to and interaction with the justice system by people with an intellectual disability and their families and carers and Submission to the Victorian Law Reform Commission Role of Victims in the Criminal Trial Process: consultation paper.
OPA's Director of Strategy, John Chesterman, recently published an article in Australian Social Work on how elder abuse response strategies could be strengthened. Read the summary here:
"Elder abuse is acknowledged to be a significant social problem in Australia, but Australia’s elder abuse responses have significant limitations. These responses, as evidenced by state and territory elder abuse strategies, voice important principles and typically seek to improve the knowledge of service providers, potential victims and the general public about elder abuse. But they tend then only to identify and draw upon existing service and community care responses in their attempts to address elder abuse. This article provides a policy analysis of existing elder abuse response strategies and argues that reforms are needed to ensure that the strategies: prioritise the wishes and well-being of the person in question; identify and empower lead agencies; and drive collaborative responses."
John Chesterman, 2015. ‘Taking control: Putting older people at the centre of elder abuse response strategies’, Australian Social Work (DOI:10.1080/0312407X.2015.1076868).
Enhancing the lives of people with acquired brain injury
In 2013, OPA launched a $400,000 research fund to promote the rights and wellbeing of people with an acquired brain injury (ABI) in the criminal justice system. Three research projects commenced in May 2014 and OPA anticipates that fewer people with an ABI will be inappropriately imprisoned in coming years as a result of these projects. The projects are described below.
The Centre for Innovative Justice’s Enabling Justice project establishes a Justice User Group for people with ABI who have experience of the criminal justice system. Two of the project partners, Jesuit Social Services and the RMIT University Centre for Innovative Justice, are facilitating the group. It gives people with an ABI a direct role in identifying key issues for the criminal justice system and necessary reforms. The project partners have acknowledged expertise in human rights, policy reform and advocacy. The project gives impetus to change in current approaches, based on evidence.
Diverge Consulting’s Building Bridges is a training and networking project that is increasing contact, communication, and collaboration between workers in the ABI, disability and justice sectors. The training assists by increasing the knowledge base of workers in the different sectors and developing practical tools such as regional service maps. Events are being held across Victoria through the training calendars of ABI Information Training and Secondary Consultation projects.
Monash University’s People with ABI and their interactions with the criminal justice system project focuses on the education of key personnel in the Victorian criminal justice system and related community supports. It aims to improve recognition of the rights and needs of people with an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) in contact with the system. The project is producing educational modules designed for legal, judicial and law enforcement professionals and students from various disciplines. The research examines how there can be better understanding and responses to help ensure that people with ABI do not become entrenched in the criminal justice system due to their disability support needs, with input from all key stakeholders.
OPA’s Independent Third Person Program provides skilled volunteers to assist people with cognitive impairment such as intellectual disability and mental illness to communicate in their interviews with Victoria Police.
OPA investigated how ‘repeat presenters’ to this program could be better supported to reduce their contact with the justice system. The findings are presented in the 2012 report Breaking the Cycle.
OPA found that around one third of people had used the Independent Third Person Program more than once and that the program facilitated positive relationship between clients and their volunteer supporter. This is an obvious opportunity for a new initiative to work with clients to help them avoid future contact with the justice system.