On Thursday 16 July 2020 the Queensland Parliament debated the Corrective Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020. Because of the undemocratic nature of the Queensland Parliament’s rules, I found out as the bill was being passed that Labor and the LNP had "negotiated" to cut the speaking list (including my spot) so I wasn't abole to make a contribution on the Bill.
Below is the speech I would have given:
First of all, insofar as this bill responds to the Crime and Corruption Commission’s 2018 report into corruption in Queensland’s prisons, Taskforce Flaxton, I welcome it. In December 2018, Taskforce Flaxton made a number of recommendations about how to tackle this kind of corruption.
Most notably, it identified the existence of private prisons in Queensland as a key factor creating significant corruption risks, and I commend the government for responding to this recommendation as swiftly as it did.
But today I want to talk about the ban that this bill proposes on prisoners accessing low-security facilities, regardless of their circumstances, if they fall into particular categories. Like many stakeholders who submitted on this bill, I’d like to see this taken out.
I’m also very concerned about late amendments to this bill, which propose serious penalties for breaches of COVID health directive by adding provisions for up to 6 months’ imprisonment in addition to the already significant fines that can be imposed. It should be obvious that legislating for new penalties of imprisonment in this way - in the space of only two days and without consultation - is a dangerous parliamentary practice. I’ll elaborate more on this later in my speech.
Ensuring access to low-security facilities wherever appropriate
I’m very concerned about clause 11, which would create a new section 68A in the Corrective Services Act 2006, to ensure that a person can’t be transferred from a secure facility to a low-custody one if they have been convicted of a sexual offence or murder, or are serving a life sentence.
In this context a low-custody facility includes a community corrections centre or a work camp.
This certainly wasn’t recommended by Taskforce Flaxton, and it completely flies in the face of all the evidence we have about rehabilitation and best practice in a corrections context.
Sisters Inside opposed this, because decisions about security classification and custody placement should be determined on a case-by-case basis, based on an individual’s circumstances and needs, as well as the applicable risk. This would be impossible under this bill. They also submitted that this doesn’t increase safety, because the power to deny a transfer to a low-custody facility already exists.
The Queensland Human Rights Commission submitted that restricting the right to liberty in this way provides no balance between rehabilitation and safety, because the particular needs and circumstances of a prisoner would be ignored by this blanket ban on certain transfers. This potentially arbitrary measure could result in the lowest-risk detainees, such as women and prisoners who are infirm, being held in the highest security areas.
The Commission also pointed out the evidence about restrictions on life prisoners, especially women. In its 2019 Women in Prisons report, it noted that a number of Queensland Corrective Services staff thought suitable ‘lifers’ should be placed in low-security prisons, because they assist with stability, culture and grounding the population. The report found that keeping all low-security women ‘lifers’ in the secure Brisbane or Townsville Women’s Correctional Centres for their whole sentence did not assist with their reintegration into the community, nor was it an appropriate administrative decision. Of course, such measures also come with a disproportionate impact on women life-sentenced detainees who are a low risk.
The Prisoners Legal Service also pointed out that this amendment flies in the face of evidence-based best practice for successfully reintegrating prisoners back into the community. The Queensland prison system should approach this goal with much more ambition. PLS said this measure would undermine the good order of correctional centres, have adverse impacts on prisoner wellbeing and engage a range of human rights concerns. Like the others, it stressed that a prisoner’s placement should be considered individually, based on their individual risks and needs, not a blanket prohibition like this Bill proposes.
Unless we see amendments that reflect the clear and repeated advice of advocates and stakeholders in this space such as Sisters Inside, the Qld Human Rights Commission and the Prisoners Legal Service, it is very difficult for me to support this bill.
New criminal penalties
I’m also very concerned about late amendments to this bill, which enact serious penalties for breaches of COVID-19 health directives.
Currently, under section 362D of the Public Health Act, it is an offence to fail to comply with a public health direction. The maximum penalty for the offence is 100 penalty units, or $13,345.
I’d have thought we could all agree that is a pretty significant penalty. Late amendments, first mentioned by the Health Minister two days ago and circulated only yesterday, will change this maximum penalty to 100 penalty units, 6 months’ imprisonment, or both.
Abuse of parliamentary process
It was only last sitting week that I was standing here taking issue with a similar abuse of parliamentary process around the public sector pay freeze, and imploring the Government to bypass the usual committee processes only in the most urgent of circumstances. But here we are again.
The Queensland Council for Civil Liberties has been on the front foot about this, and has drawn attention to the lack of consultation about the bill, especially among relevant stakeholders. I’ve confirmed just this afternoon that there has been no consultation with the Queensland Law Society, or the Queensland Human Rights Commission. These are another two organisations whose views we should surely expect to have the benefit of before legislating new offences like this, but we don’t.
QCCL has also pointed out that public health directions are effectively not subject to judicial review - all the more reason why the new penalties should be introduced as a stand-alone bill, subject to the usual scrutiny by the Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee.
[Table the QCCL media release and a letter to the Health Minister imploring the Government to consult on the proposal flagged on Tuesday morning.]
I think every one of us here, and Queenslanders everywhere, accepts the need for some loss of civil liberties to respond to this health crisis, and that there’s been a need to respond urgently. But that excuse is wearing thin. Introducing new penalties, including imprisonment, at this stage of the pandemic response is not supported by health advice or urgency. Rather, it’s an example of how common this kind of abuse of Parliamentary process has become.
Leaving aside these process concerns, there’s a kind of absurdity in putting people in prison - in a higher risk environment for transmission of this virus - as a penalty for risking the spread of the virus.
Impacts of imprisonment
What’s more, this bill shows once again that the government continues to ignore significant evidence that imprisonment is not an effective response to anti-social behaviour. This bill likely means more people, who might otherwise have avoided contact with the system, could be forced through Queensland prisons. Afterwards, we know they’ll often struggle to find work and reintegrate into their community. A lot of the time, they’ll reoffend and end up back in prison.
Disproportionate impact on marginalised people
And of course, it’s no secret that police enforcement of COVID-19 health orders in Australia has reflected the international trend, and disproportionately targeted people of colour and people on low incomes. In Queensland, as at the beginning of the month police had issued just 6 fines to business and 2,102 fines for individuals.
There’s no further detail about the nature of these individual fines - I’ve asked for it, but to no avail. Human rights advocates around the country have called for better demographic data to be collected on those being fined. Interstate data shows that the local government areas with the most fines are those with higher proportions of people of colour, and those on low incomes. In regional New South Wales, towns with high Indigenous populations but no virus cases have still been the site of significant numbers of fines.
COVID-19 has increased the existing inequalities in our society. I am loath to see this extend to policing, huge fines and custodial sentences.
This state has a dark history, under both Labor and conservative governments, when it comes to laws that lock people up with no regard for civil liberties.
To the extent this bill reforms our prison system in line with Taskforce Flaxton, I support it. But I can’t support arbitrary measures that undermine our prison system’s capacity to rehabilitate people and genuinely enhance community safety.
Nor can I support last-minute amendments to lock more people up and force them through the prison system for breaching COVID-19 directives.
For those reasons, I cannot support this bill in its current form.