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People with an acquired brain injury (ABI) let down by Australia’s judicial system

A criminal justice system expert and disability advocate talk about key issues relating to people with disabilities in the criminal justice system, which they hope will be addressed in the Final Report of the Disability Royal Commission which will be released publicly today.

RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice provided two submissions to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability which included 36 recommendations.

Stan Winford, Associate Director of Research, Innovation and Reform, Centre for Innovative Justice

Topics: Disability Royal Commission, NDIS, acquired brain injury and the justice system

“The criminal justice system has failed to recognise acquired brain injuries (ABI) as a disability and has failed, time and again, to provide people with an ABI with respect and support.

“Two per cent of Australians have an ABI, but in Victorian prisons, that number is far higher. One study by Corrections Victoria found that 42 per cent of male prisoners and 33 per cent of female prisoners have an ABI.

“A lack of education and awareness, funding, services for diagnosis and assessment, all inhibit people with an ABI who have been in contact with the system to rehabilitate.

“Fragmented and inconsistent responses to people with disabilities in the criminal justice and disability service systems means that their needs are rarely responded to appropriately.

“Quite often, people with an ABI are stuck in a vicious cycle where they are in constant contact with the justice system due to the lack of appropriate support.

“One of the recurring issues identified in our work has been difficulty meeting NDIS eligibility criteria.

“There is a distinct lack of access to services for diagnosis and assessment available for individuals in custody, as well as a lack of documentation to prove diagnosis for those already assessed.

“Many disability services do not provide services in custodial settings because of internal policies or barriers, or a belief it is not possible to do so.

“Big changes need to be made and the government needs to be working with disability self-advocates and developing innovative approaches to embedding lived experience in service design.

“Our submission highlighted some of the issues, barriers and challenges for people in custody accessing and maintaining a NDIS package, and set out recommendations connected to four priority areas to address these issues:

  • Housing: improving pathways into secure long-term housing for people with disabilities in the criminal justice system

  • Early intervention: improving early intervention and diversion for people with disabilities in contact with or at risk of contact with the criminal justice system

  • Disability and trauma awareness: improving trauma and disability-informed practice in the criminal justice system

  • System collaboration and information sharing: improving cross-sector communication and information sharing to improve outcomes of people with disabilities in the criminal justice system.”

Stan Winford is a legal and justice system expert with experience in innovation and reform, including human centred design, disability in the justice and corrections systems and criminal law.

Dorothy Armstrong, Adviser and Peer Support Worker for the Centre for Innovative Justice’s Supporting Justice project

Topics: acquired brain injury, lived experience, criminal justice system

“There needs to be a greater investment in supporting the use of lived experience to inform criminal justice system policy, particularly for people with disability in the criminal justice system.

“Everyone in the criminal justice system experiences a level of trauma because we are a part of a system that is failing people and the community.

“Currently, the way people are treated in the criminal justice system, particularly those people with poorly understood disabilities and mental ill-health, creates further harm.

“The immediate result is push-back – a reaction that can create an unsafe environment for everyone.

“Our system should be working better; it should be about justice and restorative outcomes.

“There is so much that needs to change. A lot of the problems for people with ABI in the justice system have not improved since my experience with it. The support is not there. The funding is not there. The understanding is not there.

“People with lived experience can offer insights into how a system operates in ways that a person with learned experience cannot. Including lived experience in policy design and implementation is vital.

“If people with a disability in the justice system don’t experience respect and support, it’s highly likely that they’ll continue the offending cycle they're on.”

Dorothy Armstrong is an Adviser and Peer Support Worker in the Centre for Innovative Justice’s Supporting Justice project. Dorothy gave evidence to the Royal Commission regarding the impact of the criminal justice system on people with disability. As a person with lived experience of the criminal justice system, Dorothy is one of the founding members of the Voices for Change self-advocacy group for people with acquired brain injury.

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