Saturday, December 31, 2011

Harsh penalties for boat crew 'target wrong people'

Jared Owens | The Australian  | December 31, 2011

NINE Australian judges have now criticised laws imposing mandatory five-year jail terms on the crew of asylum-seeker boats, with the latest saying the harsh penalties target the wrong people, condemn their children to "extreme poverty" and have no deterrent effect.

Sentencing two impoverished Indonesian fishermen this month, Queensland Supreme Court judge Roslyn Atkinson said the laws were failing to catch the smuggling kingpins who move freely between Indonesian villages in search of more crew members to bribe on to the boats.

"Those people who employ men like you will just move to another village because they regard you as completely expendable, and people in small villages without newspapers or the means of modern communication are most unlikely to hear of a sentence imposed in an Australian court," Justice Atkinson said in Brisbane on December 2.

Since the policy was introduced under the Howard government in 2001, it has been criticised by at least nine judges in NSW, Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Northern Territory Supreme Court judge Judith Kelly -- sentencing Edward Nafi, 58, in May -- said the five-year penalty for the offence was "completely out of kilter with sentences handed down in this court for offences of the same or higher maximum sentences involving far greater moral culpability".

Other judges to complain of the laws include Northern Territory Supreme Court Chief Justice Trevor Riley and judges of the same court, Dean Mildren and Peter Barr; West Australian District Court judge Mary Ann Yeats, NSW District Court judge Brian Knox and Queensland District Court acting judge Brad Farr.

But Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon yesterday backed mandatory sentencing, saying through a spokesman it was an effective deterrent when combined with other measures such as education campaigns.

When The Weekend Australian presented Ms Roxon's office with a parliamentary petition she tabled in 2001 denouncing mandatory sentencing in the NT and Western Australia as racist and insisting on greater discretion for judges, the spokesman said the Attorney-General was unavailable to comment.

Justice Atkinson said the convicted men, the cook and deckhand aboard a boat intercepted in March last year, had four children between them aged between 17 and three, who would "suffer dreadfully" without their fathers.

Jufri, 41, the cook, was the sole income-earner for his family of four, who live in an 18-square-metre hut with a dirt floor. His wife now works shelling crabs for 1.5 cents an hour.

The other man, Nasir, 42, has two children aged 17 and eight who now have no breadwinner. Nasir is skimping on essentials such as soap and toothpaste so he can send some of his $8 daily prison allowance back home.

"The serious offenders at whom (mandatory sentencing) must surely be aimed are those who profit from people-smuggling . . . rather than people like yourselves who are certain to be caught and who live in such impoverished circumstances that the small amount of money you would make from a journey such as this makes it worth taking the risk," Justice Atkinson said.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Most frequent users of Legal Aid are under 18: study

Anna Patty | SMH | 27 December 2011

PEOPLE under the age of 18 are the most frequent users of Legal Aid services in NSW, research has found.

While the bulk of people who turn to Legal Aid for free legal assistance are adults charged with criminal offences, they usually only use the service once or twice.

Legal Aid NSW has profiled its most frequent users for the first time and has found that 90 per cent are children or young people under the age of 21.

The findings, published in its latest annual report this month, show the average age of young people making their first contact with Legal Aid is 13.

The study looked at Legal Aid clients who were returning for further help and who may not be getting their needs met.

Access to Legal Aid is means- and merit-tested for adults, but not for anyone under 18.

The study, which looked at the 50 most frequent users of the service between July 2005 and June last year, found one young person had used the service 159 times. More than three-quarters of frequent users of the service were Australian-born males.

''Not surprisingly, our high service users were concentrated almost entirely in our criminal law practice,'' the report said.

Three-quarters of the young people in frequent use of Legal Aid had been victims of neglect or had experienced violence in the home as children.

Almost half had been diagnosed with mental illness, a third had cognitive impairment and two-thirds had experienced being homeless.

''Too often, court is the critical and common intervention point,'' the report said.

''We share our high service users with many other agencies involved in the criminal justice and human services systems.''

The researchers suggested agencies including the Department of Community Services and Legal Aid could be working together more effectively to help resolve the complex needs of youth requiring frequent use of legal services.

The researchers said other studies had shown the number of children in out-of-home care had doubled between 2005 and 2010.

A review of the NSW juvenile justice system had said the increasing number of children and young people involved in child protection and out-of-home care systems suggests there will be an increasing number of children and young people at risk of entering the juvenile justice system in coming years.

A Human Rights Agenda for the new Attorney-General, continued

Australia’s new Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, was sworn in on 14 December 2011.

We asked some of Australia’s leading human rights advocates, activists and academics to tell us, in less than 100 words, what the Attorney’s top human rights priority or initiative for 2012 should be. We’ll be sharing more of them with you in the coming days and weeks.

John Tobin is an Associate Professor at Melbourne Law School and a member of the HRLC Advisory Committee

The prioritisation of efforts to address human rights considerations is always fraught with danger. But the reality of limited resources means that prioritisation is a fact of political life. Given this reality, the top priority for the new Attorney General in 2012 must be ensuring the successful implementation of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011. The requirement to scrutinize all new legislation in light of international human rights standards must not be reduced to a shallow process of compliance. Instead, the Attorney General must lead from the front and demonstrate that substantive engagement with international human rights standards leads to more effective and equitable legislative outcomes.

Lucy McKernan is Manager of Strategic Projects with the Public Interest Law Clearing House (Vic)

That a five year old girl can be lawfully refused admission to a government funded kindergarten on the basis of her parents’ same-sex relationship, is a disgrace. Even the Acting Bishop for the relevant Catholic diocese was ‘appalled’ by the discriminatory decision, yet Australian laws allow this form of discrimination by religious organisations.

Attorney-General Roxon should remove the blanket exceptions for religious organisations permitting them to discriminate on the grounds of sex and age. At the very least, the Attorney should prohibit discrimination by religious organisations in respect of their government funded functions and require greater transparency from organisations seeking to rely on the exceptions. Importantly, the Attorney should also show leadership by encouraging her State counterparts to follow suit.

Les Malezer is Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples

The priority for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is to gain recognition and respect as first peoples, and acknowledgement and protection of Indigenous rights.

In 2012, the Attorney General must make the Human Rights Framework effective, leading cultural change across government. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples this includes giving the recommendations and reports of the Australian Human Rights Commission, including the ATSI Social Justice Commissioner, real authority, not just political lip service. The Government must implement and be accountable to reports on human rights by national and international authorities. There should also be a focus on judicial and legal education, to ensure legal professionals understand Indigenous rights and can properly and impartially resolve cases regarding those rights.

Lucy Adams is a Senior Lawyer with the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic

On census night in 2006, approximately 105,000 Australians were homeless, including approximately 7,480 families. Australia needs a human rights-based framework for addressing homelessness.
InVictoria, we have seen how legislative protection of human rights can work in practice through the Victorian Charter of Human Rights. The HPLC has relied on the Charter’s binding obligations on public bodies – to give proper consideration to human rights in decision-making and to act compatibly with human rights – to avoid the eviction of 42 people, including 21 children, from social housing into homelessness.

Enforceable human rights obligations, including national homelessness legislation that enshrines the right to adequate housing, are critical to Australia’s ability to effectively prevent and address homelessness.

Monday, December 26, 2011

"Panic" by David Marr: on John Hatzistergos

David Marr | SMH | 17 April 2008 

That this is the last civilised nation not to guarantee its citizens' rights counts for nothing. We don't have foot and mouth disease or video games for grown-ups. So what's to stop us quarantining Australia against bills and charters of rights?

The Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, has been thundering against them lately in the best traditions of NSW Labor. Bob Carr was one of the wittiest and most determined opponents of handing out rights we could enforce in court. It's something one-party states never willingly allow.

"We do not live in a perfect society and never will," Hatzistergos solemnly informed the Sydney Institute last week. "There may well be laws perceived by some to be unjust in our community. It is however wrong to suggest that they can be remedied by enacting charters with wide-ranging values and all will be well."

If only our grim-faced Attorney-General had been around in 1791 to tug James Madison's sleeve and stop him making the historic mistake of presenting the US Congress with constitutional amendments guaranteeing free speech and a free press; the freedom to assemble and the freedom to worship; the assurance that life and liberty will only ever be infringed by due process of law - and, alas, the right to bear arms.

Two-and-a-bit centuries later in Australia, the courts are all but powerless to prevent these rights being legislated away. And a good thing too, says Hatzistergos: "Transforming social and political questions into legal ones … forces the courts to start making decisions … for which they do not have democratic legitimacy."

That's American talk. America gave the world the great model of entrenched rights and lately America has bred mighty rhetoric attacking the courts as undemocratic for protecting them.

The wisdom of experience? Yes and no. Hatzistergos and his tribe are mouthing the words of those sore losers whose democratic sensibilities are offended by the secular, decent revolution pulled off by the US Supreme Court in the last half century that began in 1954 with Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, ending racial segregation of schools.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

RIP Sailesh Rajan

Reasonable Grounds today pays tribute to Aboriginal Legal Service solicitor, Sailesh Rajan, who  passed away this morning, after a thankfully short battle with cancer. He was only 29.

Sailesh arrived in the Redfern office of the ALS in 2006 as a PLT volunteer and quickly rose through the ranks as a solicitor, first in Western New South Wales, and later in Parramatta, before finally settling in Redfern. 

By 2011, he had ascended to being a senior solicitor of the Service, routinely appearing in summary hearings and committals, as well as District Court sentences and appeals. 

RG remembers him for his dedication, generosity, intelligence and endless curiosity.

He will be very sadly missed. Our sincere condolences go to his family, friends and colleagues at the ALS. 

Constitutional reform crucial to indigenous wellbeing

Noel Pearson | The Australian | December 24, 2011

There is an existential angst about the place of indigenous cultures in the Australian nation.

I HAVE been close to the epicentre of indigenous policy for 20 years now. During this time I have dealt with premiers and prime ministers, ministers and public servants, both great and small, smart and dumb, committed and careless.

I think I have seen every permutation of policy and program, and the swings of the policy pendulum from left to right and back again. Real progress has been made in some areas, but the larger picture is one of waste and failure.

Like other Australians who take this policy scene to heart, my moods swing from ebullient optimism to deep depression. The small gains lift me but the entrenched failures stricken me.

My experience is less than half that of Lowitja O'Donoghue, Marcia Langton and Galarrwuy Yunupingu. I recall sitting on the beach at Yunupingu's Arnhem Land outstation with former minister Mal Brough and hearing Yunupingu list the names of the prime ministers and ministers he had dealings with since the days of the Gorton government. His story could have been titled Groundhog Day.

It is not for nothing that the one conviction I share with these leaders is that constitutional reform which properly defines the place of indigenous Australians in the nation is a matter of first importance.

Gay marriage debate has a long way to go

Frank Brennan | Eureka St | 6 December 2011

On the weekend the ALP party conference voted to amend the party platform on same sex marriage. The platform now states: 'Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples irrespective of sex who have a mutual commitment to a shared life.'

Churches and religious organisations will retain the freedom to perform marriage ceremonies only for a man and a woman eligible for marriage under the rules of the church or organisation.

The conference voted by 208 to 184 to allow Labor MPs a conscience vote on the issue. Tony Abbott continues to insist that Liberal MPs will not be granted a conscience vote. This will change. If it doesn't, several Liberals, including Malcolm Turnbull, will cross the floor. It could even become a leadership issue in the party.

Within the life of the present parliament, our elected leaders will probably be voting on the issue, and in all likelihood the members of all major parties will have a conscience vote.

How should the conscientious Catholic member of parliament vote? If I were a member of parliament, I would support a law for the recognition of civil unions similar to the present United Kingdom law, and I would vote against any bill extending the definition of marriage to include the union of two men or two women.

I would do so because I think the State should not discriminate against couples who have a mutual commitment to a shared life (whatever their sexual orientation), while affirming that the bearing and nurturing of the children of the union is a constitutive good of marriage (even though not all marriages produce children).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The cruelty and injustice of a poorly funded legal aid system

Elizabeth O'Shea and Nicole Papaleo | The Age | December 22, 2011

Imagine being jailed for something you didn't do and help is denied.

TERRY Irving found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1993, an armed robber held up a bank in Cairns and stole $6230. Meanwhile, Irving was at the nearby pub playing pool. A relaxed and generous man, he lent his car to a couple of blokes for the afternoon. He did not think further of it until he heard the police reporting information about the robbery over the radio, including his car registration. Irving was arrested and charged, despite not matching the physical description.

Irving's problems became a nightmare when his barrister failed to show up and he met his new one on the morning of the trial. Despite the hearing being listed for three days, he was convicted that afternoon and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Irving was denied legal aid funding for an appeal. He went on to represent himself and, unsurprisingly, lost.

Fortunately, Irving met legal aid solicitor Michael O'Keeffe while in jail. Many inmates will tell you they are innocent, but O'Keeffe was good enough to listen.

Together, they decided to take Irving's case to the High Court, a task that has cost countless hours of their lives. They applied for legal aid to do so. This was again denied; the reason is still unclear. When the High Court learnt of this, the judges immediately adjourned the hearing and ordered Irving to get legally aided representation.

With legal aid finally granted, the result was breathtaking. The chief justice at the time, Sir Gerard Brennan, expressed ''the gravest misgiving about the circumstances of this case … [It is] a very disturbing situation. And in all of this, the accused has been denied legal aid for his appeal.''

The conviction was quashed, unopposed by the Crown. A retrial was ordered, but Irving had to wait another year in limbo before the State of Queensland decided not to proceed with another prosecution.

Judge Williams steps down

Ira Glass | This Amercian Life | 20 December 2011

Judge Amanda Williams, who was the subject of our episode "Very Tough Love" has announced that she'll resign from the bench as of January 2nd. Because she's stepping down, ethics charges brought against her by the state's Judicial Qualifications Commission will be dropped.

Earlier this month, the Commission added two charges to the original 12 counts it filed in November. One of those counts accused Judge Williams of allowing her lawyer in the case, John Ossick, to represent litigants in cases she was still presiding over from the bench. The other accused her of putting a man into drug court even though there were no drug charges against him, because he was the nephew of attorney Jim Bishop. When a drug court staffer questioned the decision, according to the charges, Judge Williams replied "Jim Bishop has been there for me for years and years and years. He has never asked me for anything, ever, in the entire time I have been on the bench, to use my power in any case to do anything for anybody and he's asked me to do this. ... And it's that damn simple." She also said, according to the filing: "It's called being a Bishop. And I don't want to have any more conversations about it. I know I'm doing the wrong thing, "

Jim Bishop has denied asking for any favors from Judge Williams.

Judge Williams will be stepping down after 21 years on the bench. In a consent order, she agreed not to seek other judicial offices.

The JQC's jurisdiction is limited to removing judges from the bench. Judge Williams can still face criminal charges for some of the JQC's allegations.

Here's the AP story about Williams' resignation.

Link to the original podcast of "Very Tough Love"

Is Prison Culture Killing Our Children?

A. Scott Washington, J.D. | Hip Hop Justice | December 2010

A factor that cannot be ignored when discussing urban violence is over reliance on incarceration in this country. To ignore the causal connection between contemporary criminal justice policy and the rise in youthful urban violence is turning a blind-eye to factors that are rotting the foundation of contemporary urban society.

There are nearly 2.4 million persons incarcerated in state or federal prisons in this country. Half of those persons are African Americans. Obviously, identifiable behavior patterns are associated with African Americans being disproportionately incarcerated. On the other hand, the intersection of public policy and poverty has collided with the forces of history, race, economic theory and human vulnerability to create a social pathology like none seen before in this country. As a result, “prison culture” is now firmly embedded in inner city America.

Following 35 years of tough on crime policy, the affect of generational incarceration and recidivism has created an environment ripe for this new subculture within the inner city. This subculture is fueled by the extremely violent and brutal customs and values that were born within the concrete walls of this country’s correctional institutions.

Prison culture, which is now abundantly present in the inner city, is directly connected to the extreme and pervasive violence we are experiencing in the African American community. These conditions grow exponentially, parallel to the prison population in this country. This phenomenon is cyclical and, as the statistics suggest, actually increase violent criminal activity in both the inner city and suburban communities. Therefore, community safety is significantly compromised by the tough on crime mentality associated with contemporary criminal justice policy; particularly, this country’s drug control efforts that have become the fundamental premise of our national crime policy.

Our children have become the collateral damage of contemporary American criminal justice policy. For many inner city residents and African American children in particular, criminal justice policy and poverty have contributed to a blurring of cultural, as well as social values. During the welfare reform era we spoke about children raising children. What prison culture has resulted in today is children raising themselves. A significant proportion of our inner city youth today are the children of prisoners that inhabit this nation’s prisons. When these children reach adolescence they are typically raising themselves in the bowels of contemporary urban America.

What criminal justice policy and poverty have perpetuated in this country is the social disenfranchisement of African American children. The forces of public policy, poverty, and human vulnerability have conspired to create this new and peculiar universe within the inner city. The apparent evolving nature of this new inner city subculture and its intersection with poverty and social pathology has created an environment ripe for youthful urban violence to flourish.

The questions that must be raised here are: 1) what are we going to do with the massive numbers of unskilled, undereducated, and often, recalcitrant felons that will be returning to our communities over the next several decades (98% of the 2.4 million prisoners in this country will be released)? 2) When will policy be implemented to deal with the flaws and inadequacies in current drug control policy? 3) When are our lawmakers going to present concrete solutions for problems that cannot be conquered by locking up millions of Americans?

A. Scott Washington, J.D. is a formerly incarcerated person who has earned a Bachelors Degree in Urban Studies with an emphasis on contemporary urban problems and a Juris Doctor Degree from the University Of Dayton School Of Law. Also, he is Assistant Professor of Criminal and Social Justice at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois. A. Scott Washington also co-hosts a radio program entitled, “Hip Hop Justice Radio” which airs Tuesdays & Wednesdays from 6-8 PM CT on Party 934 and 94.9 FM, Hudson Valley New York.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Aboriginal crime and punishment: spending on jails but not outcomes

The rise of a punitive "law and order" culture in Australia has had a profoundly racial dimension, manifested in soaring rates of indigenous incarceration. The number of indigenous adults held in the nation's jails has increased for the 11th year in a row -- as Crikey revealed in part one yesterday -- while over the past decade the indigenous imprisonment rate has outstripped the non-indigenous rate by a factor of 11, ballooning more than 47%. The non-indigenous rate grew 4% in the same period.

This shift towards the use of crime and punishment as a tool of social control -- known as "governing through crime" -- has led to the rise of a "risk agenda" that concentrates on the risk of crime occurring, not just actual crime. In this society of heightened fear and increased surveillance, punishment is increasingly targeted at those on the periphery. And no group lies more at the periphery than indigenous Australians.

That outcomes for Aboriginal Australians are deteriorating in all but a select few areas has been confirmed by virtually every government report released this year. Here is an extract from just one -- the Productivity Commissions latest Closing the Gap report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators, released in August:
"Nine years after this series was commissioned, there is still a considerable way to go ... Wide gaps in average outcomes remain across most indicators. Of the 45 quantitative indicators in the report, for example, available data show improvement in outcomes for only 13 indicators ... For 10 there has been no real improvement, while for another seven, including social indicators such as criminal justice, outcomes have actually deteriorated."
Some of the most shocking indicators are in the area of health, where hospitalisation rates are vastly higher for indigenous men and women than for other Australians.

Ratio of indigenous to non-indigenous rates of hospitalisation

Reason for hospitalisation                                            Women               Men

Injuries caused by assault                                             31                        7
(i.e. hospitalisation rate for indigenous women 
31 times higher than the rate for 
non-indigenous women) 

Injuries caused by non-fatal family violence assault      31                        25

Mental and behavioural disorders                                  1.5                      2.2
Chronic disease:

End-stage renal disease                                                 15                        8
Diabetes                                                                        5                         3.5
Circulatory                                                                    2                         1.5

According to the same report, indigenous adults indicate having a disability that profoundly or severely restricts core activity at around twice the rate for non-indigenous people. They are also twice as likely to be recent users of illicit substances as other Australians and four times as likely to be homeless.

David Woodroffe, managing solicitor in criminal law at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency in the NT, says the Northern Territory intervention has invested heavily in institutions focused on punishing criminal behaviour, while providing minimal services to help those who turn to crime in the first place.

"There’s more policing in communities -- more police stations and police posts -- so more people will come to the attention of police, will be charged, get into the [criminal justice] process. But there’s no corresponding in relation to other services ... there’s no youth diversion programs, there’s no rehabilitation services, etc. So basically, government’s providing an impetus for detecting crime and prosecuting crime but there’s not the services there for reducing crime or turning people away from it. And that’s why we see, with the lack of services like that, people becoming entrenched in the criminal justice system."

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Human Rights Agenda for the new Attorney-General

Human Rights Law Centre | 15 December 2011

Australia’s new Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, was sworn in on 14 December 2011.

We asked some of Australia’s leading human rights advocates, activists and academics to tell us, in less than 100 words, what the Attorney’s top human rights priority or initiative for 2012 should be. We’ll be sharing more of them with you in the coming days and weeks.

Catherine Branson QC is President of the Australian Human Rights Commission

My hope is that the new Attorney-General’s priorities will include bringing along her fellow ministers and parliamentarians in making the new human rights scrutiny processes effective and seeing through the consolidation of federal discrimination laws process to create an effective national equality law. She should also ensure the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and establish a national system of monitoring places of detention. Finally, the Attorney must ensure that human rights considerations inform policy in all areas of her portfolio, for example in security policy where there is an urgent need for a system enabling review of adverse security assessments.

Nicolas Patrick is a Partner and Head of Pro Bono with DLA Piper

I would prioritise the human rights of people in places of detention. A significant proportion of Australia’s prison population suffer from mental illness. There is a causal and consequential link between imprisonment and mental illness. Australia is warehousing people with mental health problems in prisons, where mental health care is entirely inadequate.

The number of juveniles in detention is also a major concern, along with the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These issues raise significant concerns with respect to Australia’s obligations under the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and require the urgent attention of the Australian Government.

Professor David Kinley is Chair in Human Rights Law at Sydney Law School

Dear Attorney,

Pay very close attention to the newly established parliamentary human rights scrutiny committee. This is a sleeping giant, whose potential power and range is underappreciated; indeed largely unnoticed. Having authority to scrutinise all bills for compliance with all Australia’s international human rights obligations goes far beyond the scope of any equivalent mechanism overseas, and it will embarrass and expose. So, heads up for the enhanced human rights scrutiny of the next wave of immigration, anti-terrorism or workplace relations proposals.

PS. Don’t take up smoking this year.

Ed Santow is Chief Executive Officer of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre

Over the last few years, the Australian Government has made progress in improving the protection of our basic rights. However, Australia still lacks a comprehensive human rights law. This increases the vulnerability of already disadvantaged people — like Indigenous Australians, people experiencing homelessness and people with a disability. To rectify this, the new Attorney-General should take the lead in fully implementing the recommendations of the 2009 National Human Rights Consultation, including by enacting a comprehensive Human Rights Act.

Nicky Friedman is Head of Pro Bono & Community Programs with Allens Arthur Robinson

The new Attorney should ensure that asylum seekers can access and exercise their legal rights.
Since the High Court’s decision in M61, which confirmed that review by the courts is available to asylum seekers who are processed offshore, legal assistance providers have been hit with floods of applications for legal representation in judicial review proceedings. Despite the huge increase in demand, no extra funds have been provided and legal aid and community legal centres are turning away desperate people. The Attorney should provide funds to boost the capacity of refugee and immigration community legal centres and legal aid commissions to deal with these matters immediately.

Professor Sarah Joseph is Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law

There are many human rights priorities for Australiain 2012, such as properly implementing the new Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act and vastly improving this country’s impoverished refugee debate. As the number one priority, however, I would say that the Australian Government must take the lead in vigorously supporting amendment of the Australian Constitution to better recognise and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples, and to educate Australian people about the need for such amendment. A campaign against Constitutional recognition has already begun (see eg, J Albrechtsen inThe Australian on 14 December). The government and the opposition must get on the front foot to counter the scaremongering.

Aboriginal crime and punishment: incarceration rates rise under neoliberalism

Inga Ting | Crikey | 15 December 2011

The number of indigenous adults held in the nation’s jails has increased for the 11th year in a row, despite the nation’s prisoner population falling for the first time in a decade.

According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, the indigenous prisoner population increased by 1% in the year to June 2011 while the total prisoner population dropped by 2%. The gap between indigenous and non-indigenous imprisonment rates grew by 0.1%, with indigenous Australians now 14.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous Australians. Today, about one in four prisoners are indigenous even though indigenous Australians make up just 2.5% of the general population.

While the reduction in the national prisoner population makes a welcome change, the fact remains that it has expanded by 30% over the past decade despite falling crime rates across the nation. At first glance, this doesn’t make sense: crime rates have decreased dramatically in the past decade (see the complete data) while incarceration rates — especially indigenous incarceration rates — have continued to climb.

The problem lies in the common assumption that punishment is a direct outcome to criminal behaviour, says Chris Cunneen, Professor of Justice and Social Inclusion at James Cook University and a criminologist with more than 20 years’ experience in indigenous criminal justice. “Sentencing and imprisonment is not related to crime. It’s a function of government policy,” he told Crikey. “The fact that we’re locking up more people is … really about changes to law and practice.”

Age of criminal responsibility is too low, say brain scientists

Alok Jha | The Guardian | 13 December 2011

Parts of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control are still developing during a person's teens

The age of criminal responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland could be "unreasonably low" given the emerging understanding of how slowly the brains of children mature, according to a report by the Royal Society. Widespread differences between individuals also mean that the cut-off age at which children are deemed fit to stand trial, at 10 years old, might not be justifiable in all cases.

The comments are part of an assessment carried out by a panel of scientists, lawyers and ethicists of how developments in neuroscienceand brain imaging should inform the future practice of law. Neuroscience and the Law, published on Tuesday, examines how scientific understanding of the brain has advanced in recent decades and the light this has shed on behaviour. The report also assesses the reliability of lie detector tests.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a child is deemed fit to stand trial at the age of 10, but in recent years it has been shown that important changes in the brain's neural circuits go on well into a person's teens. In Scotland children cannot be convicted until they are 12.

"A number of psychologists have already shown that adolescents are not wholly responsible individuals and are inclined to take risks and behave in irresponsible ways," said Nicholas Mackintosh, an emeritus professor in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge and chair of the Royal Society panel. "What neuroscience has shown in the last 10 years is that this is at least associated with the fact that the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence."

In particular, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control and cognitive control, is among the slowest parts of the brain to mature and is not fully developed until around the age of 20. "Neuroscience adds to the evidence that a 10 or 12 or 15-year-old does not have a fully adult brain in many important respects," said Mackintosh.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Populist approach to violence hardly good public policy

Josh Gordon | The Age | December 8, 2011

Melbourne is a safe place to live, so what's all the hysteria about?

Melbourne is a bad-ass town. At least it is according to outspoken Liberal MP Bernie Finn, who recently told his local paper that parts had become so dangerous automatic weaponry was needed.

''Places like Werribee, Sunshine, Williamstown . . . have suffered for a long time,'' he said. There are places . . . without a flak jacket and a sub-machinegun you just wouldn't go there.''

Finn was no doubt being colourful, as is his custom. But the comments underscore a growing sense of hysteria being encouraged by some political figures and members of the commentariat.

You might be forgiven for thinking Melbourne is in danger of being overrun by ''thugs'' (a word that incidentally derives from the Hindi ''thuggee'', who were members of an extinct Indian robber cult who killed their victims with knotted scarves) who have been allowed to ride roughshod by liberal-minded judges.

But, according to analyst Economist Intelligence Unit in its global liveability survey, Melbourne has once again overtaken Vancouver as the world's most liveable city. It is one of the safest places to live in the world.

In 2010-11 there were 6429 crimes committed for every 100,000 Victorians, a fall of 3.9 per cent compared with the previous year, and the lowest since comparable records began in 1993.

While it is true that the rate of so-called crimes ''against the person'' increased by 4 per cent, as new Police Commissioner Ken Lay points out, this has had much to do with the burgeoning problem of family-related violence. Crimes linked to family incidents, for example, leapt by an alarming 26 per cent in the year. In contrast, other crimes against the person increased by just 0.1 per cent (murders fell sharply).

The bottom line is that it is difficult to say whether Melbourne's streets are becoming less safe. Even if you accept they are, it is simplistic to blame hoons, thugs and louts, as if they represent a new subspecies of humanity.

The Baillieu government's populist approach to law and order has been its controversial tough-on-crime agenda, which includes the abolition of suspended sentences and home detention, minimum jail terms (except in extenuating circumstances) for 16 and 17-year-olds who commit acts of gross violence and new ''baseline'' minimum sentences.

A better approach would be to focus on ''upstream'' causes, rather than tackling ''downstream'' symptoms.

Killer's sharp suit fails to dress up a hollow tale

John Silvester | The Age | September 30, 2011

Matthew Johnson in the clothes he has worn most of his adult life.

THE man in the witness box doesn't look like an institutionalised inmate and one of the most dangerous men in Australia.

In his well cut shark-grey suit and matching tie he could pass for a fitness-conscious stockbroker: the type that chooses the shaved head look favoured by many modern metrosexuals.

There are no signs of jail tattoos, body piercings or battle scars to hint at the man's 20-year criminal history that now includes 159 criminal convictions - the last added yesterday when a Supreme Court jury found him guilty of murdering underworld identity Carl Williams inside Barwon Prison.

Yet at his first appearance to testify there are signs that the outfit is not the witness's daily business attire but clothes bought to impress the jury. On the sleeve of the brand new suit are four spare buttons, still loosely attached by a piece of tailor's cloth. The back slit on the jacket is held together by a single temporary stitch - a sure sign it is fresh from a store rack rather than a private wardrobe.

Over three days in the witness box, Matthew Johnson stuck to his improbable story, that he killed Williams in self-defence. His barrister, Bill Stuart, argued through the trial it was a case of ''kill or be killed''.

Such a position was somewhat eroded when the jury saw prison video of Johnson attacking Williams from behind on April 19 last year, beating him eight times over the head with the metal stem of an exercise bike and dragging him into his cell.

There they saw Johnson in the clothes he has worn most of his adult life: the prison garb of red T-shirt and shorts.

In the witness box, Johnson maintained he believed Williams was planning to kill him using four billiard balls inside a sock as a weapon. His voice was controlled, his answers measured and his version of events - totally unbelievable.

Even Johnson didn't seem confident the jurors would swallow his story. ''The moment I made up me mind to kill Carl, I just assumed that the next 30 to 40 years I'm spending in jail,'' he told them.

The exact number of years will now be decided by Justice Lex Lasry at a later sentencing date but Johnson's estimation seems certain to be around the mark.

When the jury of seven women and five men returned their verdict after 14 hours of deliberation, Johnson showed no emotion. The decision would hardly have surprised the career criminal who knew this day was coming from the time he launched his premeditated attack 19 months earlier.

Insider trader wins early release

Leonie Lamont | SMH | December 7, 2011

John Hartman, the youngest person jailed in Australia for insider trading, will be released from jail early after a successful appeal to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal.

Hartman's original four year jail term and three-year non-parole period was quashed by the appeal judges, who re-sentenced him to a jail term of three years, and non-parole period of 15 months - meaning he will be released from jail on March 1 next year.

Hartman was only 20 when he started work as an equities dealer with Orion Asset Management in 2006. Between 2007 and 2009 he passed inside information to a friend, and traded on his own account in contracts for difference. He used his inside knowledge of pending Orion trades to engage in ''front running'', making nearly $1.6 million in profits.
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Pleading guilty to the charges, Hartman has been in jail since December last year.

Justice Anthony Whealy, who during the appeal hearing said there needed to be general deterrence for ''21 year old masters of the universe'', reiterated the sentiment in this morning's judgement.

The appeal judges did not agree that Hartman's youth and relative immaturity had any role to play in the downgrading of general deterrence.

''The applicant was operating in the adult sphere of business and commerce in every respect, and of course he was himself an educated and worldly young adult in every sense of the word.

''The court cannot lose sight of the need to deter young adults from taking the significant financial advantages offered by the contemporary business world in circumstances where, at the same time, they reject the legal and moral constraints properly imposed upon their commercial behaviour.''

The court did take into account Hartman's depressed mental condition, and pathological gambling addiction, in redetermining the sentence

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sniffer dogs get it wrong four out of five times

Anna Patty | SMH | December 12, 2011

Police say ''accurate'' … a sniffer dog at a festival. Photo: Dean Sewell

A RECORD 80 per cent of sniffer dog searches for drugs resulted in ''false positives'' this year, figures show.

The figures obtained from the state government in response to parliamentary questions on notice show 14,102 searches were conducted after a dog sat next to a person, indicating they might be carrying drugs. But, in 11,248 cases, no drugs were found.

Only 2854 searches - 20 per cent - in the first nine months of this year, resulted in drugs being found, the figures show.

Last year, of the 15,779 searches conducted after police-dog identification, no drugs were found in 11,694 cases. Drugs were found in 4085 cases, resulting in a ''false positive'' rate of 74 per cent, said the Greens MP David Shoebridge, who obtained the figures.

Matthew Pels, 22, of Erskineville, a hospitality student, said he was one of the thousands searched in a public place and found not to be carrying drugs.

Mr Pels said a police dog sat next to him at Redfern station before he underwent a search about six months ago. When his pockets were emptied, a packet of dog treats was found.

''The whole thing was unnecessary,'' he said. ''I think it was a violation of my privacy.''

Mr Shoebridge said the figures showed thousands of innocent people were being ''ritually humiliated'' publicly.

''No test which has an 80 per cent error rate could be considered a reasonable basis on which to conduct an intrusive public search of a citizen going about their daily business,'' Mr Shoebridge said.

''Now that we know the error rate is so high, the program needs to be halted. Because of where they operate, police sniffer dogs tend to target young people and Aborigines. If this was happening in the car parks of merchant banks, there would be outrage.''

The secretary for the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Stephen Blanks, argued the use of sniffer dogs infringed people's freedoms and could only be justified if it resulted in a high rate of detections.

But police strongly defend the use of the dogs, saying they are reliable and can detect remaining traces of drugs on people, even after they have been disposed of.

Inspector Chris Condon of the NSW Police dog unit said the detection dogs were extremely accurate, adding that more than ''80 per cent of indications by the dogs result in either drugs being located or the person admitting recent contact with illegal drugs.

''Any suggestion otherwise is incorrect,'' Inspector Condon said. ''Drug-detection dogs are an important facet of the overall harm-minimisation strategy of the NSW Police Force. Drug-detection dogs are an extremely effective deterrent to persons transporting drugs for the purpose of supply.''

The NSW Police Association supports the dogs' use. Its president, Scott Weber, has said they have been valuable deterrents at events such as The Big Day Out.

A spokesman for the NSW Police Minister, Mike Gallacher, said the government fully supported the use of dogs because police had found them effective.

Don Weatherburn, the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, has said the high number of searches relative to detections is not an indication of failure. ''The question is how many people would carry drugs if not for sniffer dogs,'' Dr Weatherburn said.

Lawyers fear rise in use of capsicum spray

Alison Caldwell | ABC Online |  5 December 2011

Lawyers in Victoria say they fear recent changes to the Victoria Police manual could lead police to use capsicum spray or foam more often.

Capsicum spray, also known as pepper spray, is a crowd control weapon which makes the skin and eyes sting and burn.

The spray has been in the news worldwide because of the Occupy protests and two police officers in California were recently suspended after they used the spray on protesting university students.

AUDIO: Concerns police will use capsicum spray more often (PM)

Police in Victoria have been using the spray on offenders since 1998.

Until recently the police manual provided guidelines for the use of capsicum spray, including when it should and should not be used on a person.

The manual used to state the spray or foam should not be used "when a person is passively resisting arrest such as hanging limp or refusing to comply with instructions."

But that guideline was removed from the police manual last year.

Melbourne lawyer Anthony Kelly, from the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, says he is concerned police will start to use capsicum spray more liberally.

"Our major concerns are that when capsicum spray was first introduced it was very clearly specified that it should only be used in really violent or confrontational situations of serious physical confrontation," he said.

"But more and more we're seeing the use of capsicum spray against people who are simply non-compliant with police orders - so against prisoners, against people in custody, but also against protesters who are peaceful and are engaged in what's sometimes called passive resistance or non-violent civil disobedience.

"Prior to February last year there were very clear guidelines that it should only be used in situations of violence and serious physical confrontation ... and those guidelines have now been removed from the recent edition.

"We're concerned that police are more likely to use capsicum spray against people who are engaged in non-violent protest, peaceful protest."

Bad evidence convicted Folbigg of killing children - academic

Stuart Washington | SMH | December 5, 2011

WHEN Kathleen Folbigg was jailed for 30 years, there was almost universal condemnation for a mother who had done the unthinkable: killing four of her children as they lay in their beds.

A headline after the NSW Supreme Court guilty verdict read: ''Incapable of love, compelled to kill: the diaries of a tortured mother.''

Now, after six years researching the case, a legal academic living in Canada believes Folbigg was wrongly convicted based on unreliable evidence from medical experts.

And Emma Cunliffe is calling for NSW to introduce the same ''last resort'' mechanism that was used in the Northern Territory to quash Lindy Chamberlain's murder conviction.

The attack on the reliability of expert evidence in Folbigg's trial follows a court ruling on Friday allowing Jeffrey Gilham a retrial on his charge of murder, and possibly even an acquittal, after evidence from experts was found to have been flawed.

The claims by Dr Cunliffe in her book Murder, Medicine and Motherhood stand against the combined weight of the jury verdict in Folbigg's 2003 trial and two unsuccessful appeals.

Justice Reinvestment Approach Increases Public Safety, Cuts Millions in Spending

Robert Coombs, Council of State Governments Justice Center | Capitol Ideas | Nov - Dec 2011

Using Data and Expert Assistance, North Carolina and Ohio Enact Bipartisan Legislation

In June, state leaders from across the political spectrum in both North Carolina and Ohio came together in their respective states to enact comprehensive, data-driven legislation using a justice reinvestment approach. Both states received intensive technical assistance from The Council of State Governments Justice Center, in partnership with the Pew Center on the States and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The bills in both states will increase public safety and reduce crime by making probation more effective, increasing sentence lengths for certain high-risk property offenders or the most serious and violent offenders, and expanding sentencing options for nonviolent and first-time felony offenders.


Ohio’s criminal justice system faced population pressures that outstripped resources. The state’s prisons were 33 percent over capacity and projected to add another 2,800 people by 2015. Nearly half of prison admissions consisted of property and drug offenders who received short sentences followed by no supervision.

Outside the prison walls, Ohio’s probation system—a patchwork of 187 independent agencies—lacked consistent policies and minimum standards. No statewide data existed, making it difficult to know how many were on probation. Research showed some programs were increasing recidivism rates because they used no criteria to filter out participants who would not benefit from the intensive programs.

Over 18 months, a bipartisan, inter-branch working group reviewed exhaustive analyses prepared by the CSG Justice Center, and, drawing on that information, designed a 13-point policy framework to accomplish three core goals:
Require first-time property and drug offenders to serve probation terms and attend treatment;

Establish statewide criteria for community correction programs, prioritizing placement of people who would benefit most from community supervision and treatment; and

Establish statewide standards for probation to ensure consistency from county to county.
Sen. Bill Seitz sponsored the framework introduced as House Bill 86. The Ohio General Assembly passed the legislation with sweeping bipartisan majorities and on June 29, Gov. John Kasich signed the bill into law.
The new law is expected to avert all projected growth in Ohio’s prison population through 2015, helping the state avoid an estimated half-billion dollars in spending. In addition, the new statute eases prison crowding as the population gradually declines to levels last seen in 2007, generating $78 million in savings by 2015.

Moreover, the adoption of statewide risk assessment instruments means community supervision and treatment resources will be consistently targeted toward offenders who need them the most. The state will reinvest $20 million over four years to improve felony probation supervision, providing incentive funding for agencies that reduce recidivism.

North Carolina

With an increasing number of probation revocations and various sentence enhancements, North Carolina’s prison population was projected to grow 10 percent by 2020. Detailed analyses conducted by the CSG Justice Center showed that only 15 percent of people leaving prison received supervision and many high-risk offenders returned to the community unwatched. Furthermore, community-based treatment programs were poorly targeted, minimizing their impact on public safety.

With guidance from an inter-branch working group established by the governor and state leaders, CSG Justice Center staff developed policy options that included a new habitual breaking and entering offense and required post-release supervision for everyone convicted of a felony. One recommendation was that the state prioritize supervision resources for high-risk individuals and empower probation officers to implement swift and certain sanctions. By focusing existing treatment resources on people who would benefit the most from them, the law concentrated on reducing recidivism.

Rep. W. David Guice introduced the policies as House Bill 642, The Justice Reinvestment Act, which passed with near unanimous bipartisan support and was signed by Gov. Bev Perdue on June 23.
Since then, the state has shuttered two prisons and expects to save more than 3,600 beds by the 2017 fiscal year. The reduction in the population translates into more than $560 million saved over six years, including $267 million in avoided costs and $293 million in savings from reduced costs. These savings position the state to reinvest more than $4 million annually to expand community-based treatment programs for people on supervision.

Looking Ahead

The CSG Justice Center continues to work with Oklahoma and Hawaii as Justice Reinvestment states. Like North Carolina, many offenders in Oklahoma go without supervision and the prison population seems poised to climb. Hawaii has set the goal of managing its prison population in order to move all of the state’s offenders out of mainland prisons and back to in-state facilities.

The CSG Justice Center’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative is a partnership with the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice. The CSG Justice Center has provided data-driven analyses and policy options to state leaders in 14 states.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Interpreting The Constitution In The Digital Era

NPR Fresh Air | November 30, 2011

GPS monitors can track your every movement. Brain scans can now see lies forming in your brain. And advancements in genetic engineering may soon allow parents to engineer what their children will look and be like.

These new technologies are "challenging our Constitutional categories in really dramatic ways," says George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen. "And what's so striking is that none of the existing amendments give clear answers to the most basic questions we're having today."

On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Rosen, the co-editor of the new book Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, details how technological changes that were unimaginable at the time of the Founding Fathers are challenging our notions of things like personal vs. private space, freedom of speech and our own individual autonomy.

GPS Monitoring

Rosen points to United States v. Jones, a case the Supreme Court is currently considering. At issue is whether police need to have a warrant from a judge before attaching a secret GPS monitor to a car to track a suspect around the clock.

"The relevant constitutional text is the Fourth Amendment, which says, 'The right of the people to be secure in their houses, persons, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated,' " he says. "But that doesn't answer the question: Is it an unreasonable search of our persons or effects to be monitored in public spaces?"

The government contends that the Fourth Amendment only bans warrantless searches of private spaces — and that a GPS device is just an extension of basic human surveillance. But some others disagree, Rosen says. Judge Douglas Ginsburg, a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., argued that there is a difference between short-term and long-term surveillance, and that people have the expectation of privacy in both situations.

Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, Rosen says, the "GPS case has the potential to be the most important privacy case of the decade."

"Will the justices be willing to look beyond the existing Fourth Amendment categories, which have been inadequate to confront these new virtual technologies, and take a leap of imagination?" he asks. "Really, the leap they're being asked to take is the one that Justice Brandeis took in the 1920s when the court decided for the first time the constitutionality of wiretapping."

In that instance, Brandeis wrote the dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States, a landmark case in which the court ruled that neither the Fourth Amendment nor the Fifth Amendment protects a defendant against having personal conversations wiretapped by federal agents.

"Brandeis noted that at the time of the framing of the Constitution, a far less intrusive search — namely breaking into someone's home and riffling through their desk drawers to identify a critic of King George III — was the quintessential example of an unreasonable search," Rosen says. "[Brandeis added] that it was now possible to invade the privacy of people of both ends of a telephone wire. And then ... Brandeis looked forward to the age of cyberspace. He said, 'Ways may someday be developed — without breaking into desk drawers — to extract papers from home and introduce them in court before a jury. ... The court should translate the Constitution and recognize that you don't need a physical trespass to create an unreasonable search.'"

Rosen says it took decades for the Supreme Court to embrace Brandeis' insights. In 1967, the high court overruled Olmstead v. United States in the case Katz v. United States, which extended the Fourth Amendment to include all areas where a person "has a reasonable expectation of privacy." Law enforcement agents were then required to obtain a warrant before wiretapping suspects.

The Constitution In The Year 2025

But how the Fourth Amendment — and the other amendments to the Constitution — should extend to quickly changing technologies is unclear.

Recently, Rosen and his colleague Benjamin Wittes asked leading legal scholars to imagine technologies that might be developed in the next few decades that would challenge current constitutional laws. Their hypothetical scenarios, collected in Constitution 3.0, address questions about a variety of topics, including security, free speech, privacy and the constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Rosen describes one privacy scenario, imagined at a conference by Google public policy chief Andrew McLaughlin, in which websites like Google and Facebook could someday potentially post video from live surveillance cameras online — and then archive those videos in a database.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Repeat felons to receive less prison time

Alex Freedman | Eyewitness 9 News, Greenville North Carolina | November 30, 2011 

Detention conditions: degrading, intolerable and inhumane

Phil Lynch | The Drum | 30 November 2011

Conditions of detention in Australia have been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently.

In April, an independent report tabled in Western Australia's parliament described prison conditions in that state as "degrading, intolerable and inhumane".

Recent reports from Victoria's Ombudsman have been similarly critical, variously describing conditions in youth detention facilities, police cells and the Melbourne Custody Centre as "appalling", "disgraceful" and incompatible with basic human rights.

Inhumane conditions of detention are not confined to correctional facilities. Nor are they confined to the mandatory immigration detention facilities so infamously described by Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry as "factories for mental illness" and by the Australian Medical Association as "a form of child abuse".

Inhumane conditions also persist in many mental health and disability services. Indeed, investigations reported in The Age newspaper over the last two months have revealed the deaths of at least 36 people in Victorian psychiatric wards in the last three years, together with widespread allegations of physical and sexual abuse of patients.

This is just a snapshot of the developments that make Australia's implementation of the UN's Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Ill-Treatment so imperative, and the two-year delay in ratifying that treaty since Australia signed it in 2009 so galling.

The Optional Protocol is an international treaty which aims to prevent ill treatment and promote humane conditions by establishing systems for independent monitoring and inspection of all places of detention.

It is not only in the interests of persons deprived of liberty, but also the broader community, that all places of detention – whether prisons, psychiatric hospitals, police cells or disability facilities – promote rehabilitation and reintegration and that all detainees are treated with basic dignity and respect. Independent inspections and oversight are critical in this regard.

At the national level, the Optional Protocol requires that countries establish what is known as a "national preventative mechanism", or NPM. An NPM is an independent body with a mandate to conduct both announced and unannounced visits to places of detention, to make recommendations to prevent ill treatment and improve conditions, and to report publicly on its findings and views.

At the international level, the Optional Protocol establishes an independent committee of experts – comprising doctors, lawyers, social workers and academics – with a mandate to carry out country missions to monitor deprivations of liberty. The UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, as it is called, is also tasked to work cooperatively with states and NPMs to provide advice and training on the prevention of ill-treatment in places of detention.

The whole system is premised on the evidence and experience that external scrutiny of places of detention can deter and, where necessary, help to redress torture and other forms of ill treatment. By making places of detention more open, transparent and accountable, it helps to ensure that persons deprived of liberty – whether people with psychiatric illness, prisoners, people with disability or asylum seekers – are treated with basic dignity and respect.

Existing systems for transparency and accountability of places of detention are manifestly inadequate in Australia. In Victoria, for example, the Office of Correctional Services Review is an internal business unit within the Department of Justice. It reports to the Secretary of the Department – the very secretary with responsibility for correctional management – and does not make its reports public. The problem of lack of independence is not confined to corrections. The 36 deaths in psychiatric facilities are being investigated by the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, an office which, according to its own website "has responsibility under the Mental Health Act for the medical care and welfare of persons receiving treatment or care for a mental illness".

Australia signed the Optional Protocol in May 2009. Since that time, progress on ratification and implementation has been slow, with wrangling between the states and the Commonwealth about who is to foot the modest bill for detention monitoring and oversight. This is despite international evidence as to the very high social and economic costs of failing to prevent and redress ill-treatment. On any estimate, the costs of independent monitoring and oversight are absolutely dwarfed by the $23 million paid by the Commonwealth for the unlawful detention and ill-treatment of immigration detainees over the last decade, costs which could have been largely avoided with a functioning and effective NPM.

Despite its name, there should be nothing optional about Australia's ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol. The prevention of torture and ill treatment is certainly not regarded as optional or negotiable by like-minded countries. The United Kingdom, for example, ratified the treaty almost eight years ago, while New Zealand has no less than five independent, publicly accountable bodies mandated to visit and report on places of detention.

The Commonwealth, state and territory governments should all prioritise and expedite ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. Any further delay in the prevention of ill-treatment has intolerable social and economic costs and is simply not an option.

Phil Lynch is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre. You can follow the HRLC on Twitter @rightsagenda.