Unconvicted prisoners make up a third of Australia’s prison population as bail refusals skyrocket

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The number of unconvicted people in Australian prisons has risen by more than 120% in 10 years, to more than a third of the total prison population, as human rights defenders push for reforms to ensure people are not unnecessarily funneled into the criminal justice system.

More than 15,000 inmates, or about 35% of the country’s prison population, were not convicted — awaiting trial, sentencing, or deportation — by 2021. In 2011, when there were 6,723 unconvicted inmates, that cohort represented fewer than 25 % of prison population .

It comes as the Victorian government comes under pressure to review its strict bail laws after a coroner made damning findings on Monday about the 2020 death in custody of First Nations woman Veronica Nelson. The coroner described the state’s bail laws as a “complete, unmitigated disaster” that resulted in an extremely disproportionate number of Indigenous women being put behind bars.

Related: Daniel Andrews vows reform of Victorian bail law following judicial inquiry into Veronica Nelson’s death

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data, Victoria has the fastest growing population of unconvicted people in Australia, with the cohort increasing from 18.5% of all state prisoners to 43.9% by 2021.

Mindy Sotiri, the executive director of the Justice Reform Initiative, said legislative changes in several states and territories to tackle crime have caused a shift in priority in “thinking about risk in the community over all other factors.”

“It’s a very flawed argument because we know that the experience of prison, in any form, makes someone more likely to commit another crime,” she said.

“We have these knee-jerk policy responses that have some kind of message to keep the community safer, but of course don’t have any evidence to keep the community safe.”

Guardian Australia analyzed ABS prisoner numbers in the 10 years to 30 June 2021. The number of unconvicted people across the country – as a percentage of the total number of prisoners – rose from 23.1% to 35.3 over that time %.

For Indigenous prisoners, the proportion of those who did not receive a sentence increased from 23.5% in 2011 to 36.2% in 2021, compared to 22.9% to 34.7% for non-Indigenous people over the same period.

Related: ‘Complete, unmitigated disaster’: Inquiry into Veronica Nelson’s death urges review of ‘discriminatory’ Victorian bail laws

Jamie McConnachie, the executive officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, said the “mass incarceration” of First Nations people “does enormous harm to our communities and represents an urgent human rights crisis”.

The analysis found Western Australia to have the second fastest growing cohort of prisoners on remand, rising from 17.9% in 2011 to 30.6% of total prisoners in 2021. This was followed by Tasmania, where the same cohort increased from 20.4% to 30.4%. % of the total inmate population in the state during the same time period.

Legal groups have described Victoria’s bail laws – tightened after the 2017 Bourke Street massacre – as the toughest in the country.

Coroner Simon McGregor on Monday urged the Andrews government to reform the state’s bail laws as he handed over findings into the death of Nelson, who was remanded on suspicion of shoplifting and two outstanding warrants.

McGregor said changes to the state’s bail law in 2018 resulted in people being routinely returned for petty crimes that posed no risk to the community.

Under the tightened laws – designed to prevent violent offenders from being released into the community – a person must demonstrate “compelling reasons” or “exceptional circumstances” to be released.

Previously, there was a lower threshold of a “presumption of bail”.

On Tuesday, Victorian Prime Minister Daniel Andrews vowed to take “full responsibility” to make changes to bail laws and prison health care that led to Nelson’s death, which the coroner said was preventable.

In 2020, the Queensland government passed new bail law to target repeat offenders. The Northern Territory introduced legislative changes in 2021 to make it more difficult for juvenile offenders to get bail.

Related: Australians urged to do away with ‘tough on crime’ mentality for juvenile justice as it doesn’t work

Lorana Bartels, a professor of criminology at the Australian National University, said unaffordable housing and the rising cost of living were non-legislative reasons why the number of people on remand had increased over the past decade.

“Housing is just one factor a magistrate will consider when deciding whether to release someone on bail. But when there isn’t really suitable housing, it suddenly becomes a better proposition to say, okay, I’m going to take you into custody,’ she said.

“The right response will be massive, massively increased investment in public housing and mental health and education programs.”

Sotiri said Australia also lacked bail and diversion programs to support people released into the community.

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