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The Disability Royal Commission will examine how people with disability fare in the criminal justice system

Indefinite detention of, and the overrepresentation of people with cognitive disability in the criminal justice system will be examined when the Disability Royal Commission holds its next public hearing on 16-25 February 2021.  This hearing will consider the need for the provision of proper supports to people with disability. 

“Research suggests that imprisonment rates for people with cognitive disability, especially First Nations people with cognitive disability, are far higher than for the general population” Chair Ronald Sackville AO QC said.

Mr Sackville pointed out that understanding what happens to people with disability within the nation’s justice systems, especially those with cognitive disabilities, is a sensitive, but important topic for examination.

The hearing will explore whether there are more effective approaches to crime prevention and the rehabilitation of offenders than the ‘criminalisation of disability’. The hearing will also hear of the experiences of people with extremely complex needs who have been detained indefinitely without necessarily having being convicted of an offence, (for example because of unfitness to plead).

In one case to be considered a court described the conditions of confinement as ‘degrading and inhumane’.

The hearing will examine a range of issues, including:

  • Factors contributing to first encounters of people with cognitive disability with the criminal justice system
  • How and why people with cognitive disability cycle in and out of the criminal justice system
  • How the criminal justice system can criminalise disability
  • The overrepresentation of First Nations people with cognitive impairment within the criminal justice system, and factors which may contribute to this
  • The long term or indefinite detention of people with cognitive impairment under forensic custody orders 
  • The impact that diversion programs and the provision of appropriate supports for people with disability can have in reducing contact with the criminal justice system and in moving away from the criminalisation of disability

Mr Sackville said that the hearing is likely to challenge widely held preconceptions in the community as to the causes of crime, the composition of the prison population and the best ways of promoting community safety.

Mr Sackville will preside at the hearing alongside the Honourable Roslyn Atkinson AO, Ms Andrea Mason OAM and Mr Alastair McEwin AM.

Senior Counsel Assisting leading the inquiry will be Dr Kerri Mellifont QC.

The Disability Royal Commission was established in April 2019 in response to community concern about widespread reports of violence against, and the neglect, abuse and exploitation of, people with disability. The Commission is bound by its terms of reference to investigate the treatment of these at-risk members of the community.

The hearing will be closed to the public because of COVID-19, but will be live-streamed on the Royal Commission website.