NSW hearings shows slow progress on two areas of law reform

By Tom Ravlic

March 18, 2022

NSW supreme court
The NSW government is dragging the chain on two major law reforms. (Image: Adobe/Rose)

The New South Wales government is dragging the chain on two major law reforms and the state’s legal practitioners want urgent progress.

Michael McHugh, president of the NSW Bar Association, said the state government had made no progress on either lifting the age of criminal responsibility or treating personal drug use as a health issue following estimates hearings in the NSW parliament.

He said it has been two years since a special commission of inquiry into crystal methamphetamine and other amphetamine-type stimulants recommended the decriminalisation of the use and possession of prohibited drugs for personal use.

There was also an alternative recommendation that suggested resourcing be increased for specialist drug assessment and treatment services and that this be done in conjunction with a legislated diversion program.

A diversion program would see a person found by police with illicit drugs in their possession for personal use referred on to a health or similar service for intervention. There would be scope for up to three referrals.

“Diverting drug users towards health intervention, education and rehabilitation is not being ‘soft on crime’, nor does it mean this behaviour is not without consequences. It is being smart on crime, with the focus on harm reduction for drug users – not drug dealers,” McHugh said.

“A depenalisation model is not a radical approach. It has been adopted in a number of jurisdictions around the world, and a number of depenalisation programs are already operating in NSW, including the Cannabis Cautioning Scheme.

“There is no sense in throwing more public money at a model which does not work. We know that the current model is simply perpetuating a cycle of drug use and that personal drug use is on the rise.”

McHugh also expressed concern that there has been no progress made on increasing the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 12 years of age.

“At 10, the current minimum age of criminal responsibility has created a cycle of disadvantage which has had a grossly disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,” McHugh said.

“Reporting from Budget Estimates revealed that there were 293 children aged between 10 and 13 who spent time behind bars, 54% of whom were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. First Nations children are significantly over-represented in the New South Wales juvenile justice system, as are children with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities.”

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