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Warning of cuts to 'life-changing' SA court programs

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Magistrates have expressed “enormous concern” about looming cuts to court programs that aim to stop drug dependent offenders or domestic violence perpetrators from reoffending, the state’s top judge has told a parliamentary committee.

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South Australian Chief Justice Chris Kourakis told yesterday’s estimates committee hearing that the Courts Administration Authority would cut $50,000 from intervention programs this financial year in response to government savings targets.

Intervention programs aim to address the underlying causes of a person’s criminal behaviour to reduce the likelihood of them reoffending.

The programs provide a therapeutic alternative to detention for offenders who are drug or alcohol dependent, problem gamblers or who have mental health issues which contribute to their offending.

They also aim to prevent people who are domestic violence perpetrators from reoffending, and help families reunite with their children in state care.

Under the programs, offenders receive supervised treatment or rehabilitation, which is delivered by external providers and funded by the Courts Administration Authority.

Kourakis said the Courts Administration Authority had managed to save $50,000 by reducing the amount it pays to external providers to provide services such as counselling and urine testing.

He said while the cut “should not affect services”, the authority “may need to look at other cuts in interventions services” in the future.

“If in other areas the savings strategies are not met or if we have cost pressures – and we will certainly have cost pressures – we may need to look at other cuts in intervention services and across the board,” he said.

Asked if the authority was worried about the “broader societal impact” of cutting program funding, Kourakis said there was “enormous concern, especially amongst magistrates”.

“They are primarily the magistrates almost exclusively who run those programs, who tell me constantly of the lives that they have seen change around because of involvement in those programs,” he said.

“I think that is very important.”

Kourakis said it was “possible” that cutting funding to intervention programs would result in more Supreme Court trials if offences get worse down the track, but he was yet to see economic modelling confirming that.

If it comes to the crunch, I am going to have to look after core business and I will be talking about those sorts of reductions

He said the Courts Administration Authority was cutting funding from the programs because “community corrections is not core court work”.

“This was an innovation and an extension on court work,” he said.

“We are going to be hit around the head for delays and… no-one is going to say ‘ah, but we are waiting and we’ve got defendants in custody or on bail and victims waiting for their matters to be finalised but we have actually rehabilitated a few people’, which I cannot number.

“That is where I come from as the chair of the Courts Administration Council worried about budget reductions and why I look at intervention programs.”

Kourakis said this year’s $50,000 cut to intervention programs was “fairly small compared with what we did a few years ago when we reduced them even more”.

He said he was considering asking the Department of Correctional Services to fund the intervention programs “if the cost pressures or the assumptions about savings in other areas do not come to fruition”.

“I am just saying that, if it comes to the crunch, I am going to have to look after core business and I will be talking about those sorts of reductions, but we are not talking about them at the moment,” he said.

“If we do have to re-look at them, the first thing we are going to do is to try to work out how we can reduce money but maintain more targeted services that are needed.”

“By better targeting, I mean this: there are some people that it will not change at all—why spend the money on them if you find a way of predicting it—and there are some people who are about to change their lives anyway without that intervention.”

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman said the Government was “happy” to consider transferring responsibility for court intervention programs to the Department for Correctional Services.

She said she supported a national review of court intervention programs to determine their effectiveness.

“In any event, on balance and unless we hear otherwise from the court, if all these reports and reviews indicate that in some way these programs are not meritorious in some way or need to be substantially improved, of course we would support the court in their work in this regard,” she said.

SA Law Society president Rebecca Sandford told InDaily that intervention programs had become an “extremely important component of the judicial process” and had helped rehabilitate “numerous people who come to the court with complex behavioural issues”.

She said ideally, the courts should spend more on the programs.

“It is of course concerning that these programs are facing funding cuts, and that cost pressures are threatening to impact the level of support and treatment to participants,” she said. 

 “The main purpose of these treatment programs is to reduce re-offending, and intensive, tailored, supervised therapeutic programs such as those run by the Courts Administration Authority have a notable impact on that outcome.

“Noting the Government’s interest in reducing re-offending and making the community safer, the Society urges the Government to ensure that funding to the justice system enables the courts to meet the demand for intervention services, and to recognise that, for a number of offenders, punitive measures should be accompanied by therapeutic measures in order to reduce the risks of recidivism and provide greater societal benefit.”

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