NSW prepares for early release of prisoners during COVID-19 pandemic
(smh)–The NSW government is preparing for the early release of some of the state’s 13,000 prisoners in response to the coronavirus pandemic, among a raft of emergency changes to the justice system.
Laws rushed through State Parliament on Tuesday allow the state’s Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin to make orders permitting prisoners to be released early on parole. The commissioner will need to be satisfied it is “reasonably necessary” because of the risk the COVID-19 pandemic poses to public health or to the good order and security of prisons.
The prisoner must belong to a particular “class of inmates” prescribed by regulations, and the class may be defined by reference to factors such as age, health or vulnerability, or type of offence. Some prisoners will be ineligible for early release, including those serving a life sentence or any sentence for murder, a serious sex offence or a terrorism offence.
Early parole may also be revoked, and before making an early release order the Commissioner must consider factors including the risks to community safety and whether the inmate has previously been convicted of a domestic violence offence.
Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the “extraordinary measures are only to be used to respond to the threat of COVID-19, and would allow the Commissioner … to prioritise vulnerable offenders and others who pose a low risk to the community for consideration for conditional release”.
Those released would be “subject to strict parole conditions” and the Commissioner may impose requirements such as home detention and electronic monitoring.
Latest figures from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research show there were 13,635 inmates in NSW prisons at the end of last year, an increase of 3.6 per cent or 470 people compared with the previous year.
“We would urge every state and territory to follow NSW’s lead and immediately pass similar legislation,” Mr Barns said.
“Furthermore, we are concerned about young people in immigration detention and youth detention facilities.”
Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous rights lead Lidia Thorpe said children as young as 10 were being held in adult prisons awaiting trial and should be released now.
The emergency legislation also allows for pre-recording of evidence, to minimise face-to-face interactions, and makes it easier for trials to be held without juries.
Upper house Greens MP David Shoebridge and the NSW Bar Association raised concerns about the breadth of some provisions, including a wide power allowing the government to make regulations outside of Parliament to alter arrangements in criminal proceedings.
Bar Association president Tim Game SC said pre-recording evidence in a “vacuum” outside of a trial “can only be done at the substantial risk of unfair outcomes”.