An experimental program that identifies and provides a pathway out of the criminal justice system to defendants with a cognitive impairment is being rolled out at Penrith and Gosford local courts.
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For the next year, a psychologist or psychiatrist will screen defendants charged with low-level offences to identify those with a cognitive impairment, under a program being trialled by the Department of Justice and NSW Health.

Those deemed to have a cognitive impairment will be partnered with support workers, who will determine the defendant’s needs and connect them with National Disability Insurance Scheme services to help address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour.

Clinicians will also provide magistrates with a report to help them decide whether to direct the defendant into treatment or support services as an alternative to a criminal sanction.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the Cognitive Impairment Diversion Program aimed to rehabilitate defendants through early intervention to help “prevent their further contact with the criminal justice system”.

The national president of the Nepean Hawkesbury Law Society, Roderick Storie, said the program would help defendants overcome the financial barriers to qualify for section 32 of the Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act 1990, which he says allows a person to “effectively not be dealt with by the criminal justice system if they have a program wherein they can be treated by a psychiatrist or a psychologist”.

“But to get in that system, the person has either got to get a psychiatrist or psychologist and people with those problems usually don’t have the resources. Just recently, my client was dealt with under section 32 and it has cost him a great deal of money getting the reports together that he really couldn’t afford,” Mr Storie told the Herald.

“So you can treat people with cognitive difficulties with kindness, not punishment, which is a good thing; treating the cause, not the problem.”

The Attorney-General launched the pilot program at Penrith Court on Monday, alongside Minister for Mental Health Tanya Davies and Minister for Western Sydney Stuart Ayres.

Ms Davies said the program would not only help those in the criminal justice system, but benefit the wider community.

“Supporting people with cognitive issues when they enter the criminal justice system can increase their quality of life, reduce their risk of committing further crime, and create safer communities,” Ms Davies said.

Mr Storie agreed, saying the program “is designed to get people off the wave of crime because, for many people, once you start riding the wave it gets bigger and you can end up riding it for the rest of your life”.

“It will allow people, particularly younger people and first offenders, who have cognitive disadvantage, to be streamed away from the criminal system without conviction that can marr the rest of their life.”

The pilot will run at Penrith and Gosford local courts for a year, after which time the program will be evaluated to determine whether it should be expanded to other locations.

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