Shrinking prison population prompts call to rethink bail laws

Article: Chip Le Grand, The Age, June 18 2020

The pandemic has shrunk Victoria’s prison population to a two-year low, with a reduction in crime and increased approval of bail applications arresting a 20-year trend of putting more people behind bars.

Defence lawyers and justice reformers say the figures should be a “circuit breaker” to review government policies such as tight bail laws, which drove the growth in prisoner numbers before the COVID-19 crisis.

They also want corrections authorities to re-open Victorian jails to family visits for the first time since mid-March, when the nation’s prisons went into lockdown. So far, there has not been a confirmed case of coronavirus in the entire prison system.

Liberty Victoria co-chair Sam Norton, a prominent defence lawyer, said the prevention of a coronavirus outbreak in the prison system was a success. "We always knew they would take a really conservative approach in terms of visitors, knowing that COVID getting into prisons would just be a nightmare," he said.

Mr Norton said there was a case to ease some restrictions. He pointed out that lawyers and other professionals were already able to visit clients through "box visits", where inmates and visitors are separated by a transparent screen.

"In my view, there is no reason why those sorts of visits can’t be extended to family members," he said.

In the meantime, the introduction of Skype and other video conferencing to enable prisoners to stay in contact with family throughout the COVID crisis has been broadly welcomed across the prison system.

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