: Mental illness and incarceration

Mental illness and incarceration

Steven Castan
Western Australia

WA Legal Aid lawyers have expressed concern that mentally ill people are being misdiagnosed and needlessly sent to prison, particularly in regional Western Australia.

Mental health assessments are being carried out remotely and by video link and, according to Derek Hunter of Legal Aid, this has resulted in errors being made. Assessments are crucial in making appropriate sentencing and bail decisions and Mr Hunter stated ‘time constraints are such that in my experience there has been inaccuracies in information presented, which is critical that information is as accurate and thorough as possible.” He added, that “[it] would be a more thorough and comprehensive report taking into account not just what’s said on phone or by video, but a face-to-face scenario.’

The problem has come to a head recently when the Bunbury Children’s Court heard in a matter that there was no option for an assessment of a child’s mental health to be carried out in Bunbury. The child had committed a violent crime. The magistrate in the matter, Dianne Scaddan noted that there was no ability for a medical doctor to assess the child in the Bunbury court or in any country court. The boy was remanded to Banksia Hill detention centre, where a psychiatrist could assess him, which was not considered ideal.

In WA there is legislation in place that assigns specific regional hospitals the authority to make mental health assessments and admit people under hospital orders if deemed mentally unfit. Mr Hunter states that in his ten years of practice in Bunbury, he has not seen one client assessed locally.

The Mental Health Minister, Helen Morton agrees that across the state mental health assessments are not available and in most cases due to the specialised nature of the assessments, they are resulting in transfers to Perth. She is happy with the existing video link system in ‘straightforward cases’. It remains to be seen if reform in this area will be made to prevent what Mr Hunter

says is the unnecessary jailing of people with mental health issues instead of assessing and treating them in appropriate facilities.

STEVEN CASTAN is a WA-based barrister, and nationally accredited mediator.

(2015) 40(3) AltLJ 215
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