More evidence that Australia is failing on youth justice

More evidence that Australia is failing on youth justice

More examples of the serious mistreatment and harm to children in Australian youth detention centres have been detailed in damning reports from Western Australia’s independent Inspector of Custodial Services and Queensland’s Youth Detention Inspectorate

Shahleena Musk, a Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre and former senior youth justice lawyer, said governments around Australia are failing in their response to children because of a tendency to embrace policies that treat children like adults.

“Warehousing all of a state’s kids in one super prison, as occurs in WA, was always going to lead to trouble. This is a complex policy area – populist solutions won’t work. We need smart and targeted policies that acknowledge that a one size fits all approach will continue to fail our kids. The focus needs to shift from punishment to helping kids get their lives back on track,’ said Ms Musk.

According to the Inspector of Custodial Services, in 2016 there were 196 incidents of young people self-harming in WA’s Banksia Hill youth prison, and 76 incidents in the first quarter of 2017. The Inspector’s report also documented that:

  • A girl had been left to soak in her own urine for 72 hours after being confined in an observation facility alongside boys
  • “Flash bombs” and pepper spray were used to control children
  • Some children were being kept in their cells for more time than legally permitted
  • The use of restraints and armed guards had increased
  • Food was restricted as a behavioural management tool.

Ms Musk said the report reaffirms the recommendations the Inspector made in 2013, which called for a clear and consistent philosophy of rehabilitation, trauma-informed practice and for improvement in the level of services provided to kids in detention.

“The decision to make Banksia Hill the only youth detention facility for all of Western Australia has been a policy failure. It’s time to learn the lessons from the mistakes and mistreatment we are seeing right across Australia and ensure governments pursue evidence based policies. Small, age-appropriate facilities located close to communities that support connection to family and replicate positive aspects of life on the outside are what has been shown to work best,” said Ms Musk.

Questionable practices in Queensland’s Brisbane Youth Detention Centre have also come to light this week. A report from the Youth Detention Inspectorate documents allegations of staff using individual detainees as “enforcers” to intimidate other inmates into submission.

“The potential for rehabilitation in child offenders is enormous. Why on earth wouldn’t we focus on that? As a society, we should never give up on our kids by throwing them into adult-like prisons. We need governments to support the programs focused on stopping kids offending in the first place,” said Ms Musk.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids are over-represented in youth detention facilities and therefore at greater risk of being subjected to the type of mistreatment being uncovered in youth justice facilities around Australia. Ms Musk, who has worked as a youth justice lawyer in Aboriginal legal services in the NT and WA, said Australia’s failures on youth justice can no longer be ignored.

“The Federal Government needs to work closely with state and territory governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to set national ‘justice targets’ as part of the Closing the Gap framework. These would help hold governments to account by setting clear benchmarks for reducing the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in detention,” said Ms Musk.

For further information or comments, please call:
Tom Clarke, HRLC Director of Campaigns, on 0422 545 763