Towards a just system
2 August 2017


Failure to provide appropriate services for people with mental illness and cognitive impairment who come into contact with the criminal justice system is taking a huge social and financial toll, according to a new report by the NSW Mental Health Commission.

Most adult prisoners and 87 per cent of young people in custody have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder and between 8 and 20 per cent with an intellectual disability (with some overlap between the two). Without proper support the majority will reoffend.

However, research shows that earlier intervention and improvements to health and disability services could disrupt the cycle of offending and improve health and safety, as well as reduce the prison population and the burden on taxpayers.

The report, Towards a Just System: Mental illness and cognitive impairment in the criminal justice system, outlines the story of ‘Roy’, a 30 year old Aboriginal man with intellectual disability and mental health issues, whose institutional costs so far add up to nearly $2 million. It outlines the savings in both financial and personal costs where early intervention and support services are provided instead.

The report also highlights the fact that trauma stemming from childhood or adult experiences, such as childhood sexual abuse or domestic violence, is commonly a contributing factor to offending. This is particularly true for female offenders, with the report highlighting the need to urgently address the needs of women given the recent rapid growth in the female prison population.

‘Regrettably, there is a fairly common view that providing treatment and support instead of or within custody is somehow a ‘soft option’ for offenders,’ said NSW Mental Health Commissioner Mr John Feneley.

‘But overwhelmingly the evidence shows that moving toward a therapeutic approach focused on solutions means a win for everyone.

‘This is particularly important where young offenders are involved. By taking a sensible early-intervention approach, we can prevent the downward spiral that is currently so common for vulnerable young people in the system.’

The report, recently tabled in Parliament, was the topic of a forum at Parliament of NSW on 27 July. Also profiled at the forum were two research projects supported by the Commission - a psychosis and crime research data set, which combines data from NSW Health, the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research and NSW Corrective Services to investigate the impact of psychosis on offending behavior; and the development of a new data set relating to forensic patients.

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Last updated: 3 August 2017