HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.51 pm]: I want to make some comments about this government’s approach to diversionary courts. I asked some questions about this today. For those who are not quite clear what diversionary courts are, they are also known as court intervention programs. In particular, I want to make some comments about the court diversionary programs as they pertain to problem gambling. The Law Reform Commission of Western Australia produced a big report back in 2009, which I have actually used as a reference point for the last 10 years. It was comprehensive and really valuable. The report described court intervention programs as programs that effectively use the authority of the court in partnership with other agencies, often non-government organisations, to address the underlying causes of offending behaviour and, importantly, encourage rehabilitation. The ultimate objective of all court intervention programs is to reduce crime and thereby ensure that we are protecting the community.
The reason court intervention programs are also known as diversionary courts is that they do just that—they are about diverting people away from our prisons, which I think is a particularly good thing. I note that this government has said that one of its priorities is to try to reduce the number of people who are being kept in our prisons. We know that a substantial proportion of offenders who appear in our courts have underlying problems that are effectively contributing to their offending behaviours. Back in 2009, the Law Reform Commission examined a selection of WA sentencing cases from both the Supreme Court and the District Court and found that approximately 90 per cent of the cases had evidence that at least one of these issues, such as substance abuse, mental health issues, family violence, gambling or homelessness, was underpinning the offending behaviours. That says a lot about the underlying issues that offenders are grappling with. Court intervention programs are not about absolving offenders from responsibility for their offending. In fact, it is quite the opposite: they are about making people deal with the underlying causes that contribute to their offending, focusing on rehabilitation and making sure that they are able to be collaborative in coming up with solutions that will finally address what is going on for those people.
We already know that many of our court intervention programs have been extensively evaluated, so we know that they work. They have more positive outcomes than prisons, they are reducing reoffending by addressing those underlying drivers, they are ultimately making our community safer and they are also saving us a lot more money in the long run. We already have some successful court intervention programs, including the Perth Drug Court, of course, which has been running for quite a long time. It has a very solutions-focused approach to people who have broken the law because of their substance use, and we have both adult and Children’s Court versions. As I mentioned, I have represented clients through the Drug Court, and it is hard. People think they are going to go in and get an easy run, but they do not; it is a tough program. Of course we have the Start Court, otherwise known as the Mental Health Court diversion and support program, and Links, the Children’s Court version, which I was part of the lobbying efforts to get that established. Not surprisingly, as far as I am concerned, that has received two positive evaluations already in 2014 and 2015. Also, the intellectual disability diversion program is much smaller, but it is seeking to address the overrepresentation of people in the adult criminal justice system who may have an intellectual disability, a cognitive disability or autism spectrum disorder. Unfortunately, we have not seen an expansion of that program, even since the 2009 recommendation that that occur. I am a strong advocate of diversionary courts and in particular their therapeutic approach. I am keen to also see existing court structures, the court programs, expanded, particularly to regional areas as well as to other groups of offenders, again, as recommended in the 2009 Law Reform Commission report.
I want to now touch on the issue of problem gambling, which is one area that problem-solving courts have the potential to be really effective in. We know that in Australia, gambling is a very popular form of entertainment for many people, but unfortunately for some people it can also be highly addictive. A gambling disorder is estimated to affect about one per cent of the adult population in some way, but for those adults, it affects them in a very serious way. We know that problem gambling is overrepresented within certain groups, including people who have experienced significant relationship breakdown or are unemployed, people who are of a lower socioeconomic status, young people and also people who have a history of alcohol or drug misuse. Although problem gambling is recognised as a form of addiction in both psychological and legal domains, our courts do not have the same flexibility to address problem gambling as they do with problem drug use, for example. We know that in WA an increasing number of people are seeking to access assistance through our problem gambling helpline. The figures released in the 2018–19 Gaming and Wagering Commission’s annual report show that calls to the helpline have increased almost 20 per cent since 2016–17. I am concerned that the introduction of online gambling is making it even easier to access gambling opportunities. In recognition of the lack of therapeutic jurisprudence for problem gamblers, the Australian Law Reform Commission in 2006 was advocating for rehabilitation programs for perpetrators of gambling-related crime. Unfortunately, to date, only one state has implemented such an initiative. South Australia established a pilot gambling diversionary court in 2015 and after evaluation the pilot program was
found to be an enormous success. In 2017, it became a full program. It is a collaboration between statewide gambling therapy services and the courts, and the gambling court is endeavouring to reduce the social costs of gambling, including reducing recidivism while still holding people accountable. To access this court, people have to plead guilty and admit that they were offending. This means that participants can attend weekly hour-long one-on-one sessions with a psychologist and engage in a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy and cue exposure therapy. It is a six-month treatment process in which participants are required to check in with the court’s magistrate every two months to make sure that progress is being reviewed. It also has a case management element to support problem gamblers, as needed, to make sure that they can access housing as well as financial employment and relationship counselling services. There is a range of gambling types and a wide range of offences are eligible. However, there also has to be, obviously, a causal link between the offences and gambling, such as theft, fraud, assault or driving while disqualified.
A recent journal article examining the potential for therapeutic jurisprudence in gambling-related criminal offending in Australia noted that the South Australian gambling court represents not only an acknowledgement that the judicial system struggles to conceptualise and appropriately address crimes committed due to a gambling disorder, but also a willingness to implement reform to remedy these shortcomings. This court is considered to be a stunning success.
I encourage the government to consider introducing a similar model here in WA. The answer to my question today was some general comments about how the Start Court might deal with some issues around gambling but the reality is that the Start Court does not deal with gambling issues and addiction as core business. I think it is well worthwhile looking into. As I say, it stops offending behaviours and saves money in the long term. We know that gambling is a huge issue in Western Australia. We have seen that it is on the increase. I hope we look at this.