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

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The number of unsentenced people in Australian prisons has risen by more than 120% in 10 years, to account for more than a third of the total prison population, as human rights campaigners call for reforms to ensure people are not are unnecessarily funneled into the criminal justice system. .

More than 15,000 inmates, 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 inmates, that cohort represented less than 25 % of prison population .

It comes as pressure mounts on the Victorian government to review its strict bail laws after a coroner on Monday delivered damning findings into the 2020 death in custody of First Nations woman Veronica Nelson. The coroner described the state’s bail legislation as a “complete and utter disaster” that resulted in a disproportionately large number of indigenous women being jailed.

Related: Daniel Andrews vows to reform Victoria’s bail law following investigation into Veronica Nelson’s death

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

Mindy Sotiri, executive director of the Justice Reform Initiative, said tough crime law changes in different states and territories had created a shift in priority to “thinking about risk in the community over all other factors.”

“It’s a profoundly flawed argument because we know that the prison experience, in whatever form, makes it more likely that someone will reoffend,” he said.

“We have these knee-jerk political responses that are being sent out as a way to keep the community safer, but of course they don’t have any evidence of keeping the community safe.”

Guardian Australia analyzed ABS prisoner figures for the 10 years to June 30, 2021. The number of people without a conviction across the country, as a share of total prisoners, increased from 23.1% to 35.3%. during that time.

For indigenous prisoners, the proportion not convicted rose from 23.5% in 2011 to 36.2% in 2021, compared to 22.9% to 34.7% for non-indigenous over the same period .

Related: ‘Complete and utter disaster’: Inquest into Veronica Nelson’s death urges review of ‘discriminatory’ Victorian bail laws

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

The analysis revealed that Western Australia had the second fastest growing cohort of remand prisoners, rising from 17.9% in 2011 to 30.6% of total inmates in 2021. Tasmania followed, where the same cohort increased from 20.4% to 30.4% of the total inmate population in the state during the same time period.

Legal groups have described Victoria’s bail laws, tightened after the 2017 Bourke Street massacre, as the most onerous in the country.

Coroner Simon McGregor urged the Andrews government on Monday to reform the state’s bail laws by issuing findings into the death of Nelson, who was in remand on suspicion of shoplifting and two outstanding warrants for his arrest.

McGregor said 2018 changes to the state’s bail law resulted in people being routinely detained for low-level offenses that did not pose a risk to the community.

Under the strictest 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 “presumed bail.”

On Tuesday, Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews vowed to take “full responsibility” for enacting changes to bail laws and prison medical care that led to Nelson’s death, which the coroner said could have been avoid.

In 2020, the Queensland government passed new bail legislation for repeat juvenile offenders. The Northern Territory in 2021 passed legislative changes to make it more difficult for juvenile offenders to be granted bail.

Related: Australians urged to ditch ‘tough on crime’ mentality for juvenile justice as it doesn’t work

Lorana Bartels, professor of criminology at the Australian National University, said unaffordable housing and rising cost of living were non-legislative reasons why the number of people in pretrial detention had risen over the past decade.

“Housing is just one of the factors that a magistrate will consider when deciding whether to grant bail to someone. But if there’s no really suitable housing, it suddenly becomes a more viable proposition to say, OK, well, I’m going to keep you in custody,” he said.

“The appropriate response will be a massive, massively increased investment in public housing and education and mental health programs.”

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

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