CONTROVERSIAL bail laws will be reviewed in response to an rise in the number of children in detention without any reduction in crime rates.
The Premier, Barry O'Farrell, yesterday appointed a retired Supreme Court judge, Hal Sperling, QC, to lead a comprehensive ''root-and-branch'' review of the Bail Act and to report in November. Mr Sperling will be backed up by the NSW Law Reform Commission.
Mr O'Farrell said he was concerned that juveniles charged with petty offences were being forced to mix with hardened criminals.
''This is particularly disturbing,'' he said, ''when many of the young offenders are eventually released by the courts without any custodial sentence.''
The review fulfils a Coalition election promise and responds to mounting evidence that amendments to the Bail Act in late 2007 fuelled a sharp increase in juvenile detention.
The NSW Attorney-General, Greg Smith, said the number of minors admitted to remand had risen from 3623 in 2006 to 5082 in 2008.
He said many young people were denied bail because they did not have a home and often spent up to six weeks in custody without serving a custodial sentence. He said he would ''encourage more accommodation for young people''.
The cost of locking up young people on remand leapt from $29.6 million to $45.5 million between 2005-06 and 2008-09.
Mr Smith said the Bail Act had been amended 17 times since it was introduced 33 years ago, making it a ''patchwork quilt that is difficult to read and understand''.
''Every time Labor tried to clarify the law, [it] only created more confusion,'' he said.
Mr Smith said he was concerned the Bail Act had moved away from its original intent to ensure attendance at a hearing or trial and to stop defendants from committing further offences and to prevent interference with witnesses.
''While protection of the public is an important factor, merely being charged should not mean that you end up in jail,'' he said.
''The presumption of innocence must remain at the heart of bail laws.''
The NSW Law Society welcomed the review of the Bail Act 1978, particularly section 22A, which has led to more young people spending time on remand.
The former Labor government conducted a review of the act last year, but a final report of the round table discussion of stakeholders, chaired by Justice Megan Latham, has not been released.
The president of the Law Society, Stuart Westgarth, said juvenile justice statistics showed that up to 80 per cent of children and young people on remand did not receive a custodial sentence.
''Laws on bail must set consideration of the risks of granting bail against the fundamental principle that defendants are innocent until proven guilty,'' he said.
A NSW Greens MP, David Shoebridge, a barrister, said a review of the act was long overdue.
''A review of how the Bail Act affects juveniles is crucial,'' he said. ''However, this review needs to go beyond juveniles to consider the systematic failure of the current bail system.''
The Greens have called for a return to the presumption in favour of bail for all offences in NSW and the repeal of Section 22A of the Bail Act, which effectively limits people to one bail application.
''These two reforms would restore balance in our justice system and will allow courts to consider each bail application on its merits.'