Working for an Attorney-General with high ideals

Monday 1 October, 2012

Damien Tudehope was a suburban solicitor for three decades before he accepted the position of Chief of Staff to Attorney-General of NSW, The Honourable Greg Smith SC MP. At Warrane’s formal dinner on Wednesday 19 September, 2012, Mr Tudehope told his story to residents of Warrane and made it clear that he had been attracted to the position mainly due to the high ethical values to which Mr Smith aspires.

He said that Mr Smith “won’t lie, won’t spin, will always tell the truth” even when it might seem to be politically damaging.

The decision to leave his suburban law practice in the Sydney suburb of Strathfield had been a difficult one, but the position as Mr Smith’s chief of staff was a very rewarding one. Sixty percent of the legislation in the NSW Parliament came through the Attorney General’s office.

This is partly because the portfolio is now threefold: apart from the usual responsibilities of the Attorney General covering the court system and the administration of justice, he is now also the Minister for Justice covering all corrective services institutions in NSW, and the Minister for Juvenile Justice covering all juvenile justice institutions in NSW.

“In a sense it makes sense to have consolidated those three portfolios because of the synergy which works between them,” Mr Tudehope said. “However the workload which goes with it is enormous. In the past 12 months I have visited 20 of the 30 jails in NSW and we are going to two more next week.”

Mr Tudehope pointed out that Mr Smith is a former President of the New South Wales Right to Life Association and is therefore committed to promoting the dignity of other human beings – something that has influenced his attitude to prisoners in the state’s jails.

“Mr Smith starts from the premise that ‘what I bring to this portfolio is a respect for the dignity of other human beings, from the beginning of their life to the end of their life and that includes those who have committed serious offences’,” Mr Tudehope said.

“Under the previous administration there was a culture relating to corrective services that supported the view that we needed to lock these people up and throw away the key.

“Year after year, election after election, we used to have what was called the ‘law-and-order option’. That means that each of the political parties would bid with each other to see if they could be the toughest on law and order.

“At the last election, Greg went to the election and said I am not going to engage in that process. In fact he indicated that if he were elected he was going to introduce methods which would have the effect of having less people in jail.”

He said Mr Smith believed that prison should be a last resort partly because prisons tended to function as “universities of crime”. During his term as Attorney General the prison population had been reduced from 10,200 inmates to 9,500.

Instead of jailing offenders, Mr Smith has sought to establish programs that allow them to remain out of jail while carrying out worthwhile service to the community and working to pay off fines.

Mr Tudehope said that one problem in NSW at present is that there are 2,600 people in jail who have not been convicted of committing any crime. “They are in jail because they are in custody on remand waiting for their cases to be heard. Mr Smith takes the view that that is inconsistent with the proper administration of justice,” he said.

“Why should someone be in jail if they have not been convicted of an offence? The only appropriate reason why someone should be retained in jail is if they represent some risk to the community, if they are a flight risk or if there is the potential to intimidate a witness.

“Short of that, he is of the view that people who have been charged with offences should not be there. At the end of the year, a review of the bail act will be released and it will include a radical revamping of the way that magistrates will be required to deal with bail relating to offenders who appear before them and that will significantly reduce the number of people who are in jail.”

There was also the problem that 50 per cent of offenders were drug affected when they committed their offence because they had a drug habit, but little was being done, beyond drug substitution programs like the methadone program, to help them to reduce their drug dependency.

“The Attorney is of the view that if they go to jail and we do nothing about their drug habit, clearly when they leave jail they are going to re-offend,” he said.

“Clearly you can’t have people leaving jail without having done something to reduce their drug dependency. Last week we attended the first graduation of inmates from the compulsory drug treatment jail, John Marony at Emu Plains. Twenty graduates from that program have passed through the jail and they, on the last day of that program, were drug free.” By the end of next year it was expected that 300 people would have been through the program.

Other important issues that were being dealt with included the low rate of inmates being given opportunities to work while in jail and the large representation of indigenous people in jails. It was estimated that 43 percent of juvenile inmates were indigenous and 30 percent of adults were indigenous. Programs were being developed to deal with this problem as well.

One milestone since coming into office was bringing in legislation to lift the rating of inappropriately rated MA15+ computer games to an R18 rating. This had been finally achieved under Mr Smith after 10 years of fruitless debate about the issue. Mr Smith encouraged the students who attended the talk to be “fighters for principle” and to acknowledge that in many respects people who are in corrective services institutions “remain human beings”.

“In many respects we need to not have a mentality which says that because they have committed a crime they are therefore hopeless forever,” he said. “There’s an obligation for lawyers and politicians to rehabilitate people as an arm of justice and to make sure that they can perhaps lead proper lives when they are released.“

Read more news from Warrane College