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SA prisons packed with people waiting for trial

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More than a third of people held in a South Australian prison are waiting for their day in court, yet to be found innocent or guilty, new figures show.

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The data, taken from a census of prisoners on June 30, shows that out of SA’s 2991 prisoners:

The unsentenced prisoner rate in SA – 37.3 per cent – is second-highest in the country.

The figure is marginally lower than the rate in the Australian Capital Territory – 37.8 per cent – and well above the national average of 32.2 per cent.

The data also shows that nearly a quarter of unsentenced prisoners being held in custody at the end of June had been there for more than six months.

One in 10 had been in custody for more than a year.

About one in 10 unsentenced prisoners in SA prisons at 30 June 2018 had been there for more than a year. Figures rounded to the nearest percentage. Image: Nicky Capurso / Bension Siebert / InDaily. Data: ABS

Law Society SA president Tim Mellor told InDaily the primary cause of SA’s high rate of unsentenced prisoners was “excessive delays in the justice system”.

“It must not be forgotten that these unsentenced prisoners have not been found guilty and a number of them will be acquitted or have their cases withdrawn – meaning they have had their whole lives disrupted and freedom deprived for no justifiable reason,” he said.

“Some accused persons are remanded in custody for more than 12 months while they await their trial date.”

A series of reforms to legislation, policy and procedure for major criminal offences came into force during the final days of the Weatherill Government.

The reforms gave courts new discretion to set adjournment timeframes that reflect the needs of individual cases, offered new discounts on sentences for early guilty pleas and allowed for earlier disclosure of evidence to defendants.

The major indictable reforms which were meant to address the backlog have in some instances exacerbated the problem,” said Mellor.

“In a number of cases, police have sought extremely long adjournments and expected defendants to be held on remand during the length of the adjournments.

With little judicial oversight over the progress of files prepared by the police, the result is that too many people will have unnecessarily and inappropriately spent time in custody awaiting a trial.”

A spokesperson for Attorney-General Vickie Chapman told InDaily this morning that SA’s unsentenced prisoner rate was comparable to other states and territories and that each prisoner’s circumstances are unique.

“The Government keeps a keen eye on these type of statistics … while SA is sitting at 37 per cent, other States are not far off that, with Victoria sitting at 35 per cent and the ACT at (37.8) per cent,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s also important to point out that every statistic in these cases represent a different case, different circumstances and different conditions as to why these prisoners have not been sentenced yet.

“For example, some people may be remanded in custody, yet unsentenced due to not being eligible for bail because of the type of crime they have been charged with.”

The proportion of unsentenced prisoners has been rising across the country since 2010, as has the number of prisoners – both overall and per capita.

The number of prisoners across Australia has risen by four per cent over the past year, to 42,974.

The number of people in prison for every 100,000 persons has risen by three per cent during the same period.

The unsentenced prisoner rate has been rising in Australia over the past decade. Image: Nicky Capurso / Bension Siebert / InDaily. Data: ABS

The ABS figures also reveal a shockingly disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, who make up 22 per cent of the SA prisoner population.

That’s more than 10 times the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the overall SA population.

Correctional Services Minister Corey Wingard told InDaily the State Government was working to reduce the figure.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners are over-represented nationally in the criminal justice system,” said Wingard.

“South Australia continues to implement strategies to address this, including specific programming and support, visiting Elders programs, and a dedicated Aboriginal Services Unit to provide advice on ways to reduce this figure.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that nearly one in four prisoners were awaiting sentence. The correct figure is more than a third.

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