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The Law Society of NSW President and the Far West Law Society have called for better drug rehabilitation and diversionary support to address the underlying causes of offending for many users.

During a visit to Broken Hill on September 14, the President of the Law Society of NSW Joanne van der Plaat said the remote area needs an alternative approach to making its community safer.

She told ABC local radio “I was keen to get out here and particularly to some of the other regions that are further away from Sydney to just see what is going on and to really listen to some of the practitioners … to see what they’re facing in terms of their daily practice.”

Data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research shows rates across multiple offence categories in Broken Hill sit at two and three times the state average.

“With illicit-drug offences in Broken Hill in the year to March 2022 at about double the state average, and bail breaches at almost three times the average NSW rate, it’s clear that current approaches are not working,” van der Plaat said.

President of the Far West Law Society Eric Craney said establishing health and culturally safe treatment services for drug and alcohol use in Broken Hill would be a major step in helping to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

“Additionally, the Government should extend the Dubbo Aboriginal Bail Pilot across regional areas including Broken Hill, to reduce the incidents of technical bail breaches that cause no safety risk to the community, but that can result in unnecessary incarceration of vulnerable defendants,” Mr Craney said.

A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Communities and Justice confirmed that the Bail Pilot remains “on hold” after it was suspended in March 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“The Dubbo Aboriginal Bail Support Program pilot was developed in 2017 to support offenders to understand their bail conditions and how to apply to vary them if their circumstances change. This aimed to prevent offenders breaching their bail conditions.  The initiative was developed in partnership by the ASU, NSWPF, the ALS and Legal Aid,” the spokesperson said.

“Through the partnership, we gained valuable insights into the bail processes and have used these to develop a new pilot with the same aims.  The new pilot will be starting when a date is confirmed with police. The partners have not determined how long the pilot will run for.

“The setting of bail conditions is a matter for police and the courts.”

Joanne van der Plaat, Law Society of NSW President Joanne van der Plaat, Law Society of NSW President

With illicit drug offences in Broken Hill in the year to March 2022 at about double the state average, and bail breaches at almost three times the average NSW rate, it’s clear that current approaches are not working.

During the visit to Broken Hill to meet with local practitioners and hear the challenges of practising in such a vast and remote area, van der Plaat said the NSW Government has failed to respond adequately to the recommendations of the Ice Inquiry released more than two and a half years ago.

“Since that time, the Government’s only responses have been to dismiss five harm minimisation measures; promise a Drug Court in Dubbo; and announce a very small Aboriginal Justice Package,” van der Plaat said.

“Earlier this month, I stood shoulder to shoulder with the President of the NSW Bar Association of NSW and former Commissioner Howard to implore the Government to implement four ‘no-brainer’ recommendations.”

The four recommendations called by the trio during a press conference on September 1 were to introduce a state-wide pre-court diversion scheme for possession of small amounts of drugs, backed up by appropriate health supports; expand the Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) program to ensure access to all eligible defendants, including young people; urgently make increased investment in specialist alcohol and other drugs health services to meet significant unmet demand; and partner with Aboriginal communities to urgently develop and significantly increase the availability of local specialist drug treatment services that are culturally competent and culturally safe.

The report’s Commissioner Dan Howard, who provided the Government with a road map towards defeating the scourge of drugs, says the Cabinet is “still sitting on its hands.”

“I can only guess the delay is some old war on drug warriors that cannot see the shining light of the way forward,” Howard said during the press conference earlier this month.

“People are dying while the Government sits on its hands, and the report bears that out.”