Examination of Party Positions on Issues Resulting from the 2011 Forum

On Saturday February 19,  2011 a State Pre-Election Justice Forum was held where the major political parties outlined their policies regarding criminal justice in NSW.

The CJC examined political responses to certain issues and policies that were raised during the open question segment of the forum.

The forum was based upon party responses to the ‘Prison System: Submission and Questionnaire’ which can be downloaded from our website. We have also provided an exclusive analysis of political responses to key issues from the questionnaire.

The following politicians attended on behalf of their respective parties: John Hatzistergos, the Attorney General of the Australian Labor Party; Greg Smith, the Shadow Attorney General of the Liberal National Coalition; David Shoebridge of the Australian Greens Party; Phillip Costa, the Minister for Corrective Services.

The issues raised were community perceptions of the prison system, computers in cells, reforming The Bail Act, homelessness and The Bail Act, implementing a trial needle and syringe program, and mental illness within prisons.

Community Perceptions of The Prison System

All of the major political parties have already acknowledged that the current ʻlaw and orderʼ campaigns to reduce crime have failed. However, there continues to be a belief within the community that punishment is the primary goal of prisons. The parties were asked how they would change this perception.

The ALP stated that sentencing should involve a balance of punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation.

Similarly, the Coalition noted that punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation are basic philosophies of goals. However, they recognised that rehabilitation has been overlooked in recent times.

In contrast, the Greens proposed viewing prisons as “tool[s] to increase community safety by having rehabilitation services”. The CJC supports this view and advises that the ALP and the Coalition adopt the approach of the Green’s.

Computers in Cells

During the forum, each party was questioned about their position on placing computers in cells. All of the responses were supportive and suggest that computers may be placed in cells soon. While the Coalition and Minister Costa held security concerns, these can be safely addressed, as shown in the ‘Computer in Cells Proposal’. In contrast, the Greens recognised that all security risks can be eliminated within the program.

Phillip Costa pointed out that Nowra Prison had been designed to receive computers in cells and that they were awaiting a political decision. He also stated that he ” believe[s computer are] a very useful resource so long as you’ve got a capacity to maintain security and safety”.

The Coalition also confirmed that they were in favour of the proposal with Greg Smith saying that “the only thing that worries me about the proposal is security”.

Similarly, the Greens emphasised that they support computers in cells “with all of the appropriate IT restraints [which are] clearly within the grasp of the NSW government”. They also insisted that if a key aim of corrective services is rehabilitation, then computers are needed in cells. Furthermore, they demonstrated that computers and internet access are needed to maintain relationships between parents and kids. Otherwise, children are being punished for crimes that they did not commit.

The CJC recommends putting computers in cells, and is confident that there are no major risks with the program.

Reforming The Bail Act (1978) NSW

All parties re-affirmed their commitment to reviewing and improving The Bail Act.

The ALP declared that they would add objectives to the act and re-write it in plain English.

The Coalition stated in their response to the questionnaire they would re-write the act in plain English; however they did not consider the adding objectives to the act. On a more positive note, they are considering adding separate considerations for juveniles, which was re-affirmed by Smith. Likewise, the Greens are in favour of providing for juveniles separately under the act, as outlined in their response to the questionnaire. The CJC urges the ALP to provide these considerations as well.

The Greens said that they would support a parliamentary or judicial review of the act. They also insisted that some sections of it could be removed without an inquiry or review and within the first week of parliament, such as section 22a.

The Bail Act and Homelessness

Currently, homeless people are unable to apply for bail because they do not have a fixed address; essentially criminalising poverty. Each party was asked “will you commit to providing accommodation for homeless people so that they can apply for bail?”

All parties said that they support providing accommodation and would try to do more for homeless people, but remained vague about their strategies for doing so or mentioned already existing services.

The Greens announced, once again, that section 22A of The Bail Act which causes this problem should be scrapped in the first week of parliament. Both the ALP and Coalition did not comment on this plan. The CJC urgently recommends that these parties follow the lead of the Greens on this issue.

The Greens also pointed out that the Coalition plans on re-introducing drunk and disorderly offences. These were removed in the 1970s and early 1980s because they impacted harshly on Indigenous and homeless citizens. The Coalition remained silent on this issue, but the CJC strongly advises against re-introducing these offences.

Trial Needle and Syringe Programs

The ALP remains unclear about its position on implementing a trial needle and syringe program in prisons. They refused to support it in the questionnaire; yet the Labor Health Minister has been a signatory to the National HIV Strategy that supports the program. When asked about this contradiction, Hatzistergos personally rejected the program but refused to comment on the ALP’s position.

The Coalition has previously said that they would consider supporting the program with an independent evaluation of any trials, and Smith did not elaborate further.

The Greens re-affirmed their commitment to the program as a method of reducing drug use and illness within prisons.

The CJC supports the implementation of a trial needle and syringe program and advises the ALP and Coalition to embrace it as well.

Mental Illness within Prisons

The parties were asked about the issue of treating prisoners with mental health issues within prisons rather than mental health facilities.

The ALP reiterated existing programs and policies, which can be found in their response to the questionnaire.

Smith believes that “the last place a person with mental issues should be is prison”. However, the Coalition has not considered policies that would move mental health patients out of the prison system. They are only committed to improving existing facilities within prisons.

Shoebridge stated that the “single most expensive way of dealing with mental health issues is within the criminal justice system. The Greens would move funding away from criminalising mental health issues and re-invest them into the community.

The CJC recommends that the ALP and Coalition commit to the same policy as the Greens.

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