Directions for South Australia – Youth Justice

“Communication and mental health difficulties are over-represented in the Criminal Justice system and everyone deserves a fair hearing whether victim or perpetrator.” – Kelly Vincent MLC

Introduction

Research indicates that between 50 and 90 percent of young offenders have underlying communication problems or some form of disability (visible or invisible) meaning they cannot easily access the criminal justice system whether as a vulnerable witness or alleged perpetrator.   Incidences of mental health issues in this population can also be as high as 85%.

The combination of these factors can lead to a lack of convictions as the evidence that is obtained is not considered either valid or or robust enough to stand up in court.  People with communication difficulties face significant barriers when interacting with police, with defence and prosecution counsel and when relating their experiences and accounts during criminal justice proceedings, hearing and trials.  This can return vulnerable victims or witnesses to situations of danger or harm and can mean that alleged perpetrators are wrongly accused when they are innocent.

In particular, the research indicates that young offenders are often misdiagnosed as having a behavioural problem or conduct disorder when in fact they have an undiagnosed and untreated speech, language or communication disorder.

There is also evidence of a correlation between the seriousness of offences and language problems with those who have poorer oral language skills often committing crimes that are more violent.[1]

Early intervention systems are required as increased social, educational, and vocational engagement are known to be protective factors against the development or relapse of mental health difficulties and/or engagement in offending behaviour who become at risk of following the trajectory towards the youth justice system.  The Dignity Party has been highly instrumental in the establishment of SA’s Disability Justice Plan (DJP), South Australia now leads the nation in this.

Since the DJP’s establishment, a number of pioneering initiatives such as the Vulnerable Witnesses Act have increased the education and understanding within the community and legal profession about the needs of people with communication and other disabilities.

One initiative of the Disability Justice Plan is the Communication Partners’ Scheme, a program serviced by volunteers to support vulnerable witnesses and alleged perpetrators.  This has developed over the past few years but is yet to measure up to the gold standard UK Intermediary program where professionals such as speech pathologists, psychologists and social workers are specifically employed and given additional training to work with this population and ensure that they are accurately represented in court or in other jurisdictions such as police stations.

The communication intermediary’s role has been shown to be highly effective in the UK, increasing convictions, reducing suicide due to reduction of waiting period prior to evidence being given and promotes that it is the advocates and the system who must adapt, not vulnerable victims or perpetrators.

Action:

Dignity Party believe it is a fundamental right that all people have access to a fair justice system whatever their race, background, disability or communication status.

Dignity Party supports the ongoing development of the DJP for South Australia but within and in addition to that also propose:

  • Ongoing community education and support around the fact that people with conditions associated with communication difficulties are over-represented as victims and perpetrators in the justice system.
  • Ongoing education process for police and legal professionals.
  • Greater understanding that people with communication difficulties make credible witnesses if their communication needs are understood, and they are questioned appropriately.
  • Improvement in the early identification and early intervention system to respond to the needs of young children with communication and mental health issues, and for people at risk of involvement in the youth justice system.
  • A clear distinction between expert communication intermediaries within the justice system and the informal use of family members, carers or other professionals known to the person with communication problems
  • A full communication intermediary scheme be introduced across South Australia.

Dignity Party are committed to this policy, and welcome ongoing consultation with the legal profession, government, correctional services, and others involved in the justice system to promote further solutions.