Teenage silhouette
Teenage silhouette

Calls to wipe criminal records

Troubled kids who give up crime and go on to do "good things" should have the opportunity to have their records wiped, the Disability Royal Commission has heard.

Disabled First Nations man Justen Thomas, 43, turned to crime after he was abused by a Scout Leader, made a ward of the state and put into group homes.

He was abused at age 11, homeless by 13 and took refuge at nights by sleeping on trains and at stations.

But instead of trying to help, authorities locked him up when he wasn't able to pay thousands of dollars in fines he'd accrued for fare evasion and trespass.

Mr Thomas' stints in jail exposed him to the wrong crowd and his youth was a revolving door of court appearances.

That continued until 2004, when he decided to put that life behind him. Today, he is an advocate for young offenders, has spoken before the UN in Geneva and more recently during Brisbane's sittings of the Disability Royal Commission.

Despite all this, Mr Thomas can't get a job because of his criminal record.

"When I was in Scouts, I met my predator there. It was going on for a while. Then I started having epileptic seizures after that," he said.

Mr Thomas, who was born with an intellectual disability, was not diagnosed until he was an adult - having already been in prison on many occasions.

He said a lawyer helped him see that he needed extra help.

"I just started to realise that I've got a disability, which I didn't see within myself," he said.

Justen Thomas at the United Nations in Geneva.
Justen Thomas at the United Nations in Geneva.

"I couldn't see my own behaviour. Only people around me could see my behaviour and how selfish and closed up I was.

"I ended up mixing with the wrong crowd and getting in trouble."

He said his offending led to more offending as his anger grew over mistreatment by authorities and lawyers who pleaded guilty on his behalf, against his wishes.

"I've been accused of committing crimes that were never proven. So I'd be sitting there for months in prison on remand," he said.

"When I did get released, I probably took my anger out on other people and would do worse things and come back (to prison) the week after.

"I would give them a reason to arrest me, instead of them (wrongly) accusing me."

In 2004, Mr Thomas was in prison and missed the birth of his son and the death of his grandfather. He decided it was time to turn his life around.

"I slowly turned the corner and started getting involved in doing stuff," Mr Thomas said.

He joined peer support groups and eventually became an advocate for people with a disability who have come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Mr Thomas said he doesn't have a message for children - he has a message for those in law enforcement.

"They've got to be more understanding because we don't know what's going on (behind closed doors) with different traumas and all that," he said.

"They are supposed to be friends to kids, not enemies to kids.

"And locking people up for fines has to be phased out in every state. Is it worth putting someone in jail for them to get bashed by real criminals?"

Mr Thomas said his biggest struggle now is finding proper employment, given his criminal record.

"I am still struggling to live because my criminal record is still overlooking me," he said.

"You should be pardoned after a certain time."

Intellectual Disability Rights Service advocate Michael Baker used to work in the recently-defunded Cognitive Impairment Diversion Program - a program that helped people like Mr Thomas navigate the criminal justice system.

Today he helps people engage with the Disability Royal Commission.

He said half their clients were diagnosed with their disability for the first time while in the program, having slipped through the cracks until then.

"Half the time our clients, when court finishes for the day, walk over to us and say, am I going to jail today? What's happening - I don't understand at all," he said.

"We often talk about people with intellectual disabilities caught 'holding the bag'.

"When someone's got an intellectual disability or a brain injury or any other cognitive impairment on top of that, they're very easily led.

"They'll be convinced to steal things on behalf of the group or cop the blame for something while the others get off.

"And because of that sense of being excluded for so long because of their disability, the need for belonging is really strong."

He agreed there should be some mechanism to wipe someone's criminal record in certain circumstances to help them move on.

"There are a lot of people who have had similar experiences to Justen and they all more or less think the same thing," Mr Baker said.

"When enough time has gone by and you've done enough good things, you should be given the opportunity to really move on from that period in your life and have the opportunity to not be judged as a criminal."

Originally published as Calls to wipe criminal records



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