The 2019 State Budget has some interesting announcements for the state's justice sector. Not all of them are good.
A Brand New Prison
First and foremost is the $270million over 10 years for the construction of a brand new prison in the state's north.
(The first twelve months will be spent in "community consultations" about where the prison will be built. Given the NIMBY factor - "not in my back yard"- this promises to be an uncomfortable political exercise for the government.)
The new prison is intended to be a full-operation second prison, including various levels of security and a Women's Prison complex.
It is likely that some of the funding for this project will be taken from the existing youth corrections budget, given the very low rates of incarceration at the Ashley Detention Centre: for much of the last 3 years, the number of detainees at Ashley has been in single digits.
...But Filling It Will Be Hard
For many in the legal profession (both Prosecution and Defence) the deteriorating state of the court system has been a concern. Regrettably, there is nothing in the state budget to help this. Even the budget papers confirm what many already suspected:
"Criminal lodgements to the Supreme Court have increased by 26.8 per cent since 2015-16. While criminal finalisations have increased by 11.9 per cent during the same period, the greater increase in criminal lodgements has increased the criminal backlog by 33.5 per cent in the last two years."
Or in English:
the number of criminal cases started has gone up more than a quarter in the last 3 years;
cases being finished has only gone up 12%
the number stuck in the system has gone up a third, and
more than a third of cases have now been stuck in the system for more than a year.
Why is this important? Imagine you are the victim of an assault which fractured your skull, were stabbed, or raped. You have come forward, told your account, and the alleged offender has been charged.
And then you're told - in one third of cases - that it will be at least a year before the trial even happens.
This has not been due to laziness by the Court - it has introduced programs to speed up cases and has even appointed a number of (technically) retired Judges back on to the bench to speed up the process.
The same problems apply for lesser charges, dealt with in the Magistrates Court:
36.2% of cases have now been in the system for at least 6 months;
41% of criminal cases have been in the system for at least 6 months; and,
"the backlog of criminal cases has increased 31.2 per cent in the last five years."
So, why the delays? The ability of a Court to get through its workload also depends on the ability to get enough lawyers to cover the cases - and this is where the government's figures are concerning.
Legal Aid - Do More With Less
This year's State Budget includes no real increase in funding for either Prosecution (via the Director of Public Prosecutions) or Defence (given that a majority of cases are funded by the Legal Aid Commission of Tasmania). Without additional resources there is still the same number of lawyers, with the same low level of funding, trying to do more cases - and it simply can't happen.
Somewhat ridiculously, with no funding changes, it is expected that Legal Aid will be able to:
- increase by 30% the amount of legal advice it gives to clients;
- increase the amount of telephone advice from 16,000 people a year to 22,500; and,
- slightly lessen the actual grants of legal aid assistance to clients.
Until the resources needed to run the court system properly are put in place, the situation for us all - victims, defendants and the public at large - will continue to worsen.