Advocates say justice gap must be closed for people with disability
18 October 2021 at 5:48 pm
“Jail is not a place for people with disability to be in”
There hasn’t been nearly enough work done to fix the criminal justice system for people with disability, according to an advocate who knows first-hand how traumatic prison can be for those in the disability community.
Justen Thomas is an Aboriginal man with an intellectual disability who spent much of his early life caught in a cycle between jail and homelessness.
When he was 11, Thomas was taken from his family in South West Sydney and placed in an abusive children’s refuge.
After running away from the home, he ended up sleeping rough and eventually served time in juvenile detention for trespassing and shoplifting offences.
His involvement with the criminal justice system continued into adulthood, with Thomas repeatedly ending up in prison over unpaid fines.
This is an all too common story for people with disability, who are overrepresented in all stages of the system.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2018 data shows that people with disability make up 29 per cent of Australia’s prisoners, despite accounting for only 18 per cent of the population.
For First Nations people charged with criminal offences who appear in court, 95 per cent have an intellectual disability, a cognitive impairment or mental illness.
Thomas told Pro Bono News that for people with disability, going to court and being in prison was “scary and depressing”.
He said he was harassed by other people in prison about his disability.
“I was bullied, stood over and called a retard. I was locked up in a cell in segregation for something I didn’t do,” Thomas said.
“Jail is not a place for people with disability to be in.”
Thomas said the system does not accommodate the needs of people with disability, which makes it easier for this cohort to end up imprisoned.
He noted for instance that his intellectual disability makes it very hard for him to remember things.
“One time I forgot about an appointment with probation and parole and they breached me. A warrant was put out for my arrest,” he said.
“If they had the training, they’d know people with intellectual disability forget stuff and would have reminded me.”
Thomas hasn’t been in prison since 2004, and now works as an advocate at the Council for Intellectual Disability.
He said there remained a lot of injustice in the system, which needed to be fixed urgently.
“There hasn’t been nearly enough changes in a very long time to close the gap or fix the justice system for people with disability,” he said.
Thomas is calling for a disability liaison officer to be placed at every police station, just like they have Aboriginal liaison officers.
He said people with disability don’t always understand what is going on when dealing with police, and need easy read information available.
“Police and probation and parole officers also need training, because of my intellectual disability, they thought I was on drugs and subjected me to drug testing because of the way I talk,” he said.
“We need support, not being policed. People in the justice system don’t know nearly enough about how to work with people with disability.”
Overcoming these types of issues will be the focus of an upcoming event from National Justice Project – LawHack 2021: Disability Justice.
This 22 October event will bring people together to develop innovative strategies and legal solutions to defend the rights of people with disability.
Council for Intellectual Disability, People with Disability Australia and First Peoples’ Disability Network are among the community partners for the event.
You can find out more about the event here.