The Case Of The Clunky Computer Which Wrongly Sent NSW Teenagers To Jail

NSW Police / Getty

The personal computer has changed the world, increasing productivity in the same way that the industrial revolution sparked an intense period of economic growth and prosperity.

But when computers stuff up, the consequences can be tragic.

On the streets of Sydney, Police questioned Einpwy Amon, a 14-year-old Sudanese refugee.

The central computer system told the Police the boy was on a court ordered curfew.

So Amon was handcuffed, strip-searched and put it a cell overnight. His mother wasn’t contacted.

In court the next day, he was released because the court computer system showed he was not in breach of his curfew.

This happened three times over two weeks and each time, after spending the night in jail, he was released by the court.

The same policeman detained Amon all three times.

That was in 2010 and advocates for the youths say they are still getting reports of wrong arrests.

The NSW Police Force is now facing a class action for unlawful arrest of youths.

Most spent time in jail, because of the computer stuff up, after minor offences such as travelling on a train without a ticket.

The extent of the problem — just how many youths were arrested on inaccurate information — is not known but lawyers for the youths say it is in the hundreds.

The case is being handled by lawyers Maurice Blackburn and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

The computer system used by Police in New South Wales is called COPS (Computer Operational Policing System).

It’s a great tool, used for checking names and whether there are any outstanding warrants against those names.

The system also tells whether there’s a court curfew order against a young person, someone under 18 years of age.

That’s where it came unstuck. When the courts would remove or vary a curfew order, the COPS system didn’t update from the Justicelink system.

Why the two systems have trouble isn’t known. It is known that Justicelink cost around $56 million.

“For many years, we have been calling on the NSW Police to fix their computer system and compensate the victims,” says Edward Santow, the head of the Pubic Interest Advocacy Centre in Sydney.

“This injustice is traumatic for the young people involved. But it can also fuel animosity and mistrust between young people and the police, and that is bad for the whole community.”

He says many of those wrongly arrested identify as aboriginal and people whose first language isn’t English.

The COPS system, a 15-year-old DOS mainframe, was upgraded in 2011 and renamed WebCOPS.

The class action is now proceeding in the NSW Supreme Court.

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