Post by Samantha O’Donnell. Sam is one of the current MSc students in the Criminology & Criminal Justice Program. Before coming to Oxford Sam worked as a solicitor in Sydney. Like nearly all the MSc cohort, Sam has returned home for the rest of the academic year.

I am writing this from Sydney, Australia. I made it into the country a week before our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, instigated a hotel quarantine policy. This means that if anyone arrives from overseas they are required to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel at their port of arrival. There has been a mixed response to this policy from the community. However, as kinks in the policy have been ironed out and the curve has started to flatten, it seems that people are largely in favour of this approach.

To date the government has refused to allow for the release of any prisoners or immigration detainees. The Australian Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow has urged the government to take action and release immigration detainees into community detention where appropriate. This action is a necessary response to fears regarding the potential infection of immigration detainees and their inability to social distance within detention. Detainees have further urged for action by engaging in protest at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney. While over 400 academics, advocates and interested individuals have signed an open letter requesting all Australian governments, state and national, to take urgent action to limit the risk of coronavirus within prisons, and release a number of vulnerable or low-risk prisoners. Devastatingly, these calls remain unheeded.

Elsewhere I have written about the NSW COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measure) Bill 2020, and how provisions in relation to pre-recorded evidence may interfere with the accused’s right to a fair trial. This state-based legislation also empowers a court to order ‘that an accused person be tried by a Judge alone’ [s365(1)]. For this order to be made the accused person must consent. If the prosecutor does not agree, a judge alone trial must be considered to be ‘in the interests of justice’ [s365(2)(b)]. As the criminal justice system in NSW operates on the basis of representative jury trials, this change in policy exists as a massive shift in practice and logic.

The Australian government has also released a Coronavirus Australia app. While this app is not yet compulsory, Scott Morrison has strongly encouraged all Australians to download it. There have been concerns that this is an attempt at nation-wide surveillance, as the app allows for contact-tracing through the collection of information. In response to these concerns, Rachel Falk, chief executive of the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre, has come out to publicly support the legitimacy of the app. At this stage it still remains to be seen whether there will be public trust and uptake.

As the curve flattens, the mood in Sydney seems to be relatively supportive of the government’s public health response. Yet the government’s lack of response to those most vulnerable in immigration detention and prison aligns with historically punitive, violent and harsh policy. We have seen how this virus has devastated prison populations in countries around the world. The time for action is now, before it is too late.

 

This photo was taken on my daily walk.