On the 13th of August 2019, an attacker stabbed two individuals in the streets of Sydney, killing one and injuring another. The man has been formally charged with murder, attempted murder, wounding a person with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm, intentionally chocking a person with recklessness and common assault. The attacker’s mental health has been revealed as a significant factor in the ongoing police investigation and has raised concerns regarding funding for mental health services.
The head of the NSW Police Association has called for an immediate increase into mental health services and has said that authorities need to focus on stopping the problem before it becomes a criminal issue. This could not be more accurate.
If prevention of a crime cannot be assured, there must be structures to support individuals with mental health issues within the criminal justice system. Barrister Greg Barns, from the Australian Lawyers Alliance, has floated the possibility of a specialised mental health court to provide targeted support. This court could pool resources and services to properly direct vulnerable people through the criminal justice system, therefore, leading to increased prospects of rehabilitation and a decrease in rates of recidivism.
Incapacitation of the majority of criminals achieves nothing. I can understand an exception for individuals who commit incredibly violent crimes and are a risk to the safety of the community. In those cases, incapacitation is acceptable, however; the criminal justice system should be prioritising rehabilitation over any other consequence. Incapacitation for individuals with a mental illness only compounds the issue. These individuals need help, and this must be achieved outside jail bars.
Criminals who are an active risk to the safety of the community should be placed in prison. Other than that, we need to start thinking of more proactive options in the rehabilitation of offenders. Whether this is home detention with counselling requirements or specific mental health programs combined with community service, there are many different options in the sentencing of an offender suffering from a mental illness which doesn’t involve an extended time in prison.
The attacker in Sydney had been admitted to the hospital only a couple weeks before with symptoms of mental illness and has spent the last few years living rough. This information provides assistance in how we can help to prevent these crimes. Firstly, we need to invest in mental health agencies so that they can reach out to all members of society equally and provide them with the assistance they require. We also need to focus on homelessness within our community, an issue which is rarely raised but is still prevalent within Sydney and needs to be addressed through funding and state-wide services.
Rehabilitation, not incapacitation. This is what the focus of our criminal justice system needs to be because in doing so, we create a safer community for all.