Scales of justice off balance
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Scales of justice off balance

Jail is full, Supreme Court undermanned, and government response lacklustre, to say the least.

Over the past two months the news about the ACT jail has been overwhelmingly negative, with only one hint of progress. It looks like one small step forward and two large steps back.

The good news was the announcement on March 25 of the innovative "through-care" program that will aim to reduce the return of ex-prisoners by providing advice and assistance relating to housing, health, employment and "connections" to family, friends and pro-social associates.

The ACT Supreme Court.

The ACT Supreme Court.Credit:Graham Tidy

This will be a voluntary program and will be available to up to 200 prisoners released each year after serving their sentences. The program is expected to cost the government an average of $1500 for each prisoner.

I doubt that the actual numbers participating will be so high, and even though it will not be the magic bullet that some commentators envisage, it is highly commendable and is likely to be cost-effective overall.

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The Alexander Maconochie Centre.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre.Credit:Rohan Thomson

The other news is not so welcome. On May 8 we learnt that the Alexander Maconochie Centre was now full, having reached its capacity of 300 prisoners. This has come rather sooner than I had expected, even though it was inevitable that the "house full" limit would be reached one day.

This is an extremely serious situation because no indication has yet been given about what will happen in the next week or next month when a dozen or more sentenced offenders or remandees arrive.

Will they be held in the cells at the police watch house (as is done in some other Australian jurisdictions) or will they be bedded down in corridors or recreation rooms at the AMC?

The official government response to this crisis is breathtakingly inept: there will be a broad-ranging inquiry into sentencing options by the Legislative Assembly and that is planned to take (wait for it) 18 months! There are many words that might be used to describe this response but "pathetic" seems to be the most appropriate. One can only hope there are more practical plans for the immediate future that have not yet been made public.

The other piece of significantly bad news also became public on May 8 and concerned the perennial debate about whether or not we need a fifth judge on the ACT Supreme Court.

The relevant news item on that day focused on the family and friends of a murder victim who had been waiting for five years before the offender was sentenced and had lost his appeal. They strongly supported the appointment of a fifth judge in order to bring some sort of closure to their prolonged anguish.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell was reported as saying he agreed that delays were unacceptable, but that the court's workload did not warrant a fifth judge. He has made this type of comment for a considerable time without ever explaining what he really means. If there is any evidence to support his view, I believe the ACT community deserves to be told what it is.

We have now reached the bizarre situation where the eight members of the Liberal opposition in the Assembly have formally moved that a fifth judge be appointed, but the Labor/Greens government seems likely to to vote against this motion.

I certainly have no wish to become involved in a dispute between our elected politicians, but I am on the public record as one supporting a larger Supreme Court bench.

More than once in these pages I have pointed out that the proportion of ACT prisoners who are remandees, awaiting either trial or sentence, is now by far the highest in Australia at 34.7 per cent, and I have been told that that figure has been quoted by a number of different scholars and commentators.

In other words, our failure in this area of criminal justice administration is being widely cited, to the embarrassment of the whole of the ACT.

It has been suggested that the government will respond to the current crisis by repeating the "blitz" of last year which was assessed by the Attorney-General as a success in reducing the backload in the courts, but which in

reality did absolutely nothing to reduce the number of remandees occupying so much space in the Alexander Maconochie Centre.

In fact, in December last year I pointed out in these pages that the remand rate for the ACT was then the highest in Australia (based on the latest figures available at that time) and that, in my view we needed not one but two more judges in our Supreme Court. The relevant figure then was 34.8 per cent, almost exactly the same as now.

To be fair, having another "blitz" was not the only suggestion made to resolve the crisis, as establishing new court registry arrangements and possibly expanding the jurisdiction of the ACT Magistrates Court were also mentioned. These other proposals may well have merit, but it is not likely that either or both of them will solve the problem in the short-term.

The 2012 "blitz," which lasted 12 weeks from April, cost the ACT government $1.2 million, and in my view was very largely a failure. I find it hard to understand how it is that money can be found for that sort of exercise while we apparently cannot afford the money to appoint even one extra judge.

I believe that the government would be widely applauded if it could find the courage to announce in the near future that in September, when Chief Justice Terence Higgins is due to retire, it will name a new chief justice and also appoint the long-awaited and urgently needed fifth judge to that court.

Many victims of serious crime, as well as members of the legal community and the general public, would warmly welcome such an announcement.

It would also be an appropriate farewell gesture to Terence Higgins who has been arguing for some years that an extra judge is needed.

David Biles is a Canberra consultant criminologist.

biles@netspeed.com.au

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