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‘We will always be able to identify issues that need reform’

Young lawyers should involve themselves in important issues within the justice system, whether they are impacted by them or not.

user iconLauren Croft 06 March 2023 Careers
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Tom Penglis and Steven Thiele both work for the WA Justice Association. Mr Penglis is a co-founder and non-executive director, and Mr Thiele is the advocacy director. Speaking recently on The Protégé Podcast, the pair outlined why emerging lawyers should involve themselves in community justice and where WAJA’s priorities lie moving forward.

Before he started his postgraduate law degree, Mr Penglis had a “large hiccup” and was arrested, convicted and sent to prison on drug-related charges — and has since strived for “meaningful change” within the justice system.

After serving time, Mr Penglis co-founded the WA Justice Association, or WAJA, and said that while he’s able to separate his own experiences from those he represents now, there are “occasional instances” that can be triggering.

 
 

“I recently assisted representing a family in a coronial inquest, and that was into a death in custody that occurred at Acacia Prison, which is where I was staying at for most of my time. And listening to some of the witnesses’ accounts of what happened was pretty confronting, not only because of the subject matter was confronting in and of itself, but also because it did sort of bring back in very real, raw terms some of the stories of the guys that I lived with, just some of the experiences that I had,” he explained.

“But I think when I do feel like that, I just sort of take a time-out and reflect and take as long as I need to just get my headspace back on track, and then I’m good to go. But I’m lucky in the sense that I am able to detach from those raw memories. I don’t have past traumas that continuously pop up. But that’s not the same for everyone that goes through the criminal justice system. It is a very traumatising experience. And I’m lucky in the fact that I’m not really suffering from any trauma to this day.”

Because doing this type of work can be confronting in general, Mr Penglis said that for him, having time to switch off is especially important.

“To switch off and wind down, I basically just go to the gym five to six days a week. I think physical activity, I mean, it’s been demonstrated to have been very, very good for your mental health,” he added.

“Going to the gym is something that I took back up when I was incarcerated, and it’s something that is good for me. So, I guess it’s just finding whatever’s good for you, whatever’s healthy and just really sticking to that.”

Similarly, Mr Thiele said that he also needs time out from matters he’s working on — and said that while some methods of switching off are tried and true, trying something new can also work.

“Physical exercise is very, very important. Allowing your brain to take a rest after seeing something like this, or at the end of the day’s work,” he quipped.

“Also, I really enjoy writing. Writing fiction is a very different world to the world which we work and volunteer in.”

Being able to switch off also helps both Mr Penglis and Mr Thiele prioritise tasks for the WAJA, which they said has a number of goals moving forward.

“Long term, going national would be fantastic. I can’t speak for the organisation’s particular strategic goals in that regard, but limiting to WA, let’s say, achieving the success in the campaigns that we’re pushing for, raising the age to 14 years old, creating reform in incarceration for mentally impaired accused, those are the directions that we’re pushing for,” Mr Thiele said.

“And we will always be able to identify issues that need reform. And we’re going to keep going until we make ourselves redundant.”

In terms of the current issues the WAJA is focusing on, Mr Penglis said the organisation triages priorities relating back to their mission, which is to “reduce incarceration rates and improve justice outcomes”.

“There are certain areas within the broad social justice umbrella that relate maybe to LGBTIQ+ plus rights or migration, in particular, which migration does have an intersection with criminal justice, but there are other elements of migration that don’t have that intersection. So, I guess connecting it through or linking it through that lens of criminal justice is the first hurdle,” he said.

“But after that, I suppose one of the biggest considerations is that we want to undertake projects that have a realistic chance of success. And even we want to undertake projects that have a view to translating into tangible outcomes. So, we don’t want to just do research for the sake of research or because it’s an interesting topic. We want to do research that we think has a realistic chance of producing tangible change.”

This type of thinking is incumbent on lawyers moving forward who want to make a difference, emphasised Mr Thiele.

“There is a responsibility upon all of us to do as much research as we can and involve ourselves in issues whether or not they necessarily directly impact us or not. As law students, future lawyers, current lawyers, we have a responsibility to uphold the law. And as officers of the court, to serve it,” he added.

“We should still be getting a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes, what impacts the law, social policy, social justice, contributing factors to crime, which aren’t necessarily talked about, but have a much larger impact than you would necessarily know if you only studied the pure law.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Tom Penglis and Steven Thiele, click below: