Unsentenced prisoners make up a third of Australia’s prison population as bail refusals rise

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The number of unsentenced people in Australian prisons has increased by more than 120% over 10 years, to account for more than a third of the total prison population, as human rights advocates push for reforms to ensure that people are not unnecessarily drawn into the criminal justice system. .

More than 15,000 prisoners, or about 35% of the nation’s prison population, were unsentenced – awaiting trial, sentencing or deportation – in 2021. In 2011, when there were 6,723 unsentenced prisoners, the that cohort and less than 25% of the prison population. .

It comes as the Victorian government is under pressure to reform its strict bail laws after a coroner on Monday returned damning findings into the 2020 custodial death of First Nations woman Veronica Nelson. The coroner described the state’s bail legislation as a “complete, unmitigated disaster” which resulted in a disproportionate number of Indigenous women being put behind bars.

Related: Daniel Andrews promises reform of Victorian bail law after inquest into Veronica Nelson’s death

According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Victoria has the fastest growing unsentenced population in Australia, with the cohort increasing from 18.5% of all state prisoners to 43.9% in 2021.

Mindy Sotiri, executive director of the Justice Reform Initiative, said that tough-on-crime legislative changes in various states and territories have created a shift in priority around “thinking about risk in the community over all other factors”.

“It’s a very flawed argument because we know that the prison experience, of any kind, makes someone more likely to re-offend,” she said.

“We have these knee-jerk policy responses that are simply messaged as a way to keep the public safer, but of course they have no evidence of keeping the public safe.”

Guardian Australia analyzed ABS prison figures in the 10 years to 30 June 2021. The number of unsentenced people across the country – as a proportion of the total prison population – increased from 23.1% to 35.3% over that time period.

For Indigenous prisoners, the percentage of those not sentenced rose from 23.5% in 2011 to 36.2% in 2021, compared to 22.9% to 34.7% for non-Indigenous people over the same period.

Related: ‘Complete, unmitigated disaster’: inquest into Veronica Nelson’s death calls for overhaul of ‘discriminatory’ Victorian bail laws

Jamie McConnachie, executive officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, said the “mass incarceration” of First Nations people was “doing enormous harm to our communities and is an urgent human rights crisis”.

The analysis showed that Western Australia had the second fastest growing recidivism cohort, increasing from 17.9% in 2011 to 30.6% of the total inmate population in 2021. This was followed by Tasmania where the same cohort increased from 20.4 % to 30.4% of the total prison population in the state during the same period of time.

Legal groups have described Victoria’s bail laws – which were tightened after the 2017 Bourke Street massacre – as the most severe in the country.

Coroner Simon McGregor on Monday urged the Andrews government to reform the state’s bail laws as he delivered his findings into the death of Nelson, who was being adjourned on suspicion of shoplifting and two outstanding warrants.

McGregor said the 2018 changes to the state’s bail act resulted in people routinely being remanded for low-level crimes that posed no danger to the public.

Under the tougher laws – designed to prevent violent offenders from being released into the community – a person must show “compelling reasons” or “exceptional circumstances” to be released.

Previously, there was a lower threshold of “bond assumption”.

On Tuesday, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews vowed to take “full responsibility” for enacting changes to bail laws and prison health care that led to Nelson’s death, which the coroner ruled was preventable.

In 2020, the Queensland government passed new bail legislation to target young repeat offenders. The Northern Territory in 2021 succeeded in making legislative changes to make it more difficult to grant bail to young offenders.

Related: Australians urged to ditch ‘tough on crime’ mindset for youth justice because it doesn’t work

Lorana Bartels, a professor of criminology at the Australian National University, said that unaffordable housing and the rising cost of living were unconstitutional reasons why the number of people on resettlement had increased over the past decade.

“Housing is only one factor that a magistrate will take into account when deciding on someone’s bail. But if housing really isn’t suitable, it’s certainly a more viable proposition to say, OK, then, I’m going to remand you,” she said.

“The appropriate response is massive and much greater investment in public housing and mental health and education programs.”

Sotiri said Australia also lacked bail support and diversion programs to support people being released into the community.

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