People struggling with mental illness overrepresented in Victoria’s prisons

People struggling with mental illness overrepresented in Victoria’s prisons

People experiencing mental illness are being criminalised rather than supported in the community, the Human Rights Law Centre has said in a submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

Shahleena Musk, a Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said people struggling with mental health issues are being forced into the quicksand of the criminal legal system.

“Victoria’s prison population is sky-rocketing – and over half of the people behind bars have reported a mental health condition. People with mental illness should be supported in the community, not locked away in prisons. We need an improved mental health system that ensures vulnerable people are not being criminalised,” said Musk.

Approximately 53 per cent of children in youth justice in Victoria present with mental health issues. Approximately 61 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women in prison report experiencing a mental health condition.

“It is unacceptable that the Victorian Government is set to waste $1.8 billion building new prisons rather than investing in programs and services that will help people with mental illness in the community. There is something utterly wrong when a government prioritises prisons, which only serve to punish and break people, over investment in diversion and rehabilitation programs,” said Musk.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s submission makes the following key recommendations:

  • Treatment and support for people experiencing mental health issues to remain in the community;

  • Raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years, to stop the early criminalisation of vulnerable children;

  • Provide more diversion opportunities and reform bail laws to prevent criminalisation of people with mental illness.

“Prisons are fundamentally ill-equipped to help people, especially young people, experiencing mental illness. The Government should improve diversion opportunities at every stage of the criminal legal process and raise the age of criminal responsibility. It is inhuman to use prisons as a dumping ground for people with mental illness,” said Musk.

The Human Rights Law Centre submission is available here [PDF].

For media inquiries:

Michelle Bennett, Communications Director, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519