Ausnew Home Care | From jail to in-demand speaker: The disability

From jail to in-demand speaker: The disability royal commission hears Justen's story

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A First Nations man with cognitive disability has told a public inquiry his criminal record is like a "life sentence" that makes it hard to break the cycle of crime and move on with his life.

Now working as an advocate supporting others in the criminal justice system, Justen Thomas wants people with cognitive disability to be pardoned for their criminal past.

The 43-year-old, who was last in prison 15 years ago, told the disability royal commission that people with cognitive disability had "fallen through the cracks" through no fault of their own.

And, he said, they continued to be judged on their criminal records.

"At some stage we should have our criminal records pardoned because we need to move on to do good things for communities."

His testimony comes on the back of eight days of evidence presented to the disability royal commission, with more than 30 witnesses outlining the experiences of people living with cognitive disability in the criminal justice system.

For two days, the inquiry heard about Indigenous man Winmartie*'s confinement in Alice Springs, with his guardians seeking he be allowed to live in supported accommodation closer to country.

Last week it heard from Melanie, who remains detained at The Forensic Hospital in Sydney's south. Until November last year she had spent more than eight years in seclusion.

Authorities explained the difficulty in finding her supported accommodation that would ensure the safety of herself and the community.

A father of two teenagers, Mr Thomas told the royal commission his criminal history prevented him from getting employment and providing for his family.

"We do have kids to support and we do need a basic, good job", he said.

"It's fair to say that I served the time and I think it's time to set me free."

'I had no role model'

Mr Thomas detailed how he had to "fend for himself" as a child.

He was born in Sydney's west, abused and taken into care as an 11-year-old.

He developed epilepsy and ran away from a children's home, sleeping rough in parks before being sent to juvenile detention for trespassing and shoplifting.

As an adult, Mr Thomas was jailed for thousands of dollars of unpaid fines.

He told the royal commission that the court process was never explained to him properly and he could never keep track of his court dates.

It wasn't until he was in his twenties and in prison that he was diagnosed with cognitive disability.

"I was easily led because of my disability, I had no role model," Mr Thomas said.

He had no fixed address for 12 years and when he wasn't in jail, he lived in boarding houses or on the streets.

During his final prison term in 2004 for grievous bodily harm, Mr Thomas missed the birth of his son and his grandfather's funeral and decided to seek help from a disability support service to "start fresh".

"I was able to get that guidance, reflecting on my past and make changes," he said.

Mr Thomas is now in demand as a speaker and trainer and has visited juvenile detention centres in Wagga and Dubbo to tell his story.

A man giving the thumbs up in the UN building
Justen Thomas during his visit to the UN.(



In 2019, he was part of a UN delegation reporting on the experiences of Indigenous people with disability in Australia's criminal justice system.

But he is unable to travel to the United States and Canada for speaking engagements due to his criminal record.

Mr Thomas told the royal commission long-term funding was needed for diversionary programs across the country to keep young people with cognitive disability out of the justice system.

"It would help people with disability live to their potential, instead of seeing them go to jail and locking them away," he said.

"We can make changes together."

The disability royal commission continues throughout the year with hearings to examine issues like the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and education.

Chair Ron Sackville requested an extension for the royal commission's term last year which, if granted, will see it run until 2023. 


Source: ABC

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