Public confidence in the legal system is threatened by jamming people into jail while hiding a study of the State’s prison population, Liberty Victoria said today.
Liberty President Jane Dixon SC echoed the warning by the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service that the crisis in prisons presents a perfect storm. “It is dangerous to Victorian prisoners and dangerous to the community,” she said.
Already a magistrate has said a prisoner not transported for his hearing in breach of a court order had been "dehumanised" and denied his natural rights. This hearing was told that the system was in such chaos that 430 prisoners could not be transported to court.
“Despite the best efforts of the Courts, weekend court sittings are just stop-gap measures for a broken justice system,” Ms Dixon said.
To make matters worse, Attorney-General Robert Clark now censors the figures that for 12 years gave a statistical profile of the prison system, helping guide management, sentencing, diversion programs and rehabilitation.
As well, Mr Clark should not be permitted to merely blame the former government for today’s crisis. He has a responsibility to ensure that the basic rights of citizens are protected.
“When prisoners are not being brought to court the system has broken,” Ms Dixon said. “The recent pattern of failure to present prisoners before court for remand hearings is unprecedented. Bringing prisoners before the courts is basic to any proper society. Such a right was fought for over centuries, and remains central to our legal system.
“It should not be forgotten that appearance at court gives prisoners the opportunity to be acquitted, have prosecutions discontinued, or be subject to immediate release once the circumstances of their detention are revealed in open court.
“Lack of prison beds leading to overcrowding and excessive periods of detention in police watch-houses is dehumanising to prisoners. It also dehumanises police who must act as the jailers.”
Ms Dixon said that for decades courts emphasised the disadvantages of imprisonment as a response to crime. This is especially so for younger and vulnerable people in prison for the first time.
“People with intellectual disability, impaired mental health and people with limited English or impaired communication are especially prone to suffer irremediable harm in prison.
“This crisis comes at great economic and social cost to the Victorian community. Refusal of parole or parole cancellations on technical grounds will often be counter-productive. The policy of deliberate reduction of non custodial sentencing options occurs at the expense of producing a greater number of damaged, dysfunctional former prisoners who will struggle to rejoin the mainstream community upon release.
“The Government's policies may please those with a throw-away-the-key tabloid mentality, but it comes at a painful cost for Victorians well into the future.”
For further comment or interviews please contact Liberty Victoria President, Jane Dixon SC or Liberty Victoria Vice President, Michael Stanton.