General News Politics Research — 11 August 2017
Mental illness and cognitive disability the ‘norm’ among prisoners: report

Mental illness or cognitive impairment among the prison population is so high it should be “assumed as the norm” rather than the exception, a leading report has found, ramping up pressure on the state government to overhaul the criminal justice system to divert those at risk into support programs.

The NSW Mental Health Commission, a statutory agency responsible for monitoring and improving mental health in the state, said successive state governments had failed to act over the past decade and “large-scale investment” in effective prisoner diversion programs along with mental health and disability services was now required.

Half of all adult inmates have been diagnosed or treated for a mental health problem while 87 per cent of youth in custody had or have a psychological disorder, the report said.

A significant number – estimated in the range of eight per cent to 20 per cent – had an intellectual disability or borderline intellectual disability. The rate of cognitive impairment among prisoners was likely to be higher.

The NSW Law Reform Commission published reports in 2012 and 2013 that made 114 recommendations for reform, including strengthening the existing diversionary powers of the courts. None of the recommendations have been implemented.

 The Mental Health Commission said the “high prevalence” of mental or cognitive impairment among defendants “presents a strong argument that, rather than being viewed as an exception …the existence of some form of impairment should in fact be assumed as the norm”.

NSW Bar Association president Arthur Moses, SC, said the “significant delay by the NSW government” in implementing the reforms was to the “detriment of society and individuals when measures have been identified that could be implemented to minimise or stop reoffending”.

He urged the government to expedite the changes and said it was “important that persons with mental health issues are not railroaded into prison”.

Jim Simpson, a senior advocate at the NSW Council for Intellectual Disability, said prisons were “being used to warehouse people” who needed disability support services “to lead a decent life”.

“What is key is getting a full statewide system of workers at court who can build trust with people, link them in to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and other services,” he said.

Mr Simpson said the changes ultimately would “save money for the legal system”.

“It’s extremely frustrating for me as a disability advocate that the things that are needed have been so clear for so long, highlighted by the Law Reform Commission,” he said.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the government “recognises the vital role played by early diagnosis, appropriate services and co-ordinated support in reducing contact between the criminal justice system and those with mental illness and cognitive impairment”.

State Parliament passed laws this week to support a two-year pilot program to divert Local Court defendants with cognitive impairments to support services.

Mr Speakman said there was “still much more to do” and a review by former Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy, QC, of the Mental Health Review Tribunal would inform the government’s response to the Law Reform Commission reports.

This piece by Michaela Whitbourn was first seen on ‘ The Sydney Morning Herald’ August 11, 2017.

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