UN Report a reminder that Australia’s youth justice practices are failing to meet international standards

UN Report a reminder that Australia’s youth justice practices are failing to meet international standards

At the most recent United Nations Human Rights Council in March, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture tabled a report outlining the current international benchmarks expected of countries when it comes to detaining children in criminal and civil contexts.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said the report is a reminder that Australia needs to change its youth justice policies in order to meet international standards.

 “There’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to Australia’s youth detention practices and policies. For example, the outdated use of strip searches and solitary conferment on children in Australia is of growing concern,” said Ms Barson.

The independent UN expert, Juan Mendez, is tasked with interpreting and setting standards under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Mr Mendez made headlines in Australia after highlighting in a separate report the various ways in which Australia’s asylum seeker policies breach the Convention. 

“Obviously it’s been well established that Australia’s harsh and punitive asylum seeker policies breach international law in numerous ways, but this report is a reminder that we’re also failing Australian children in our domestic youth detention facilities – of which, close to 50% are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people,” said Ms Barson

Ms Barson says the standards set out in the Convention are even higher when it comes to children because they are particularly vulnerable.

“The bottom line is Australia’s youth detention policies are out of date. We’re allowing a number of physically and psychologically harmful practices to continue, and permitting punitive policies and practices, which do not prioritise young people’s rehabilitation or reintegration," said Ms Barson.

The Report singles out particularly problematic practices, like solitary confinement regimes, mandatory sentencing of young people, and imposing life sentences without parole, and says that no circumstances warrant these practices.

“Solitary confinement is an inherently dangerous and damaging practice and the negative psychological and physical impacts on children are particularly pronounced. It’s a practice that should be prohibited, but we know that jurisdictions like Western Australia continue to use solitary confinement regimes on children,” said Ms Barson.

The Report recommends that the minimum age of criminal responsibility be twelve years, not ten as it is in Australia. It also says that children should be charged as minors until they are 18 years, not 17 as is current practice in Queensland. Further, the Report notes that detention should be limited to exceptional cases and alternatives to detention should be favoured. Children should only be detained for the shortest possible period of time, and only if is in their best interests.

“Some jurisdictions in Australia, like NSW where two child offenders are imprisoned without even the possibility of being granted parole, are clearly in breach of their human rights obligations. Queensland is also in breach given the previous Government removed the legislative provision that said that prison should only be used on children as a last report. As the report reminds us, children are different to adults; they are less emotionally and psychologically developed, and are less culpable for their actions,” said Ms Barson.

The Report also notes that children should be held in age-appropriate detention centres, which offer non-prison like environments and which are run by specialised staff trained in dealing with children.

“The Northern Territory has recently moved their adult prison population into a new prison facility, but transferred youth prisoners in to the left over and run-down 30-year old adult prison. This Report should be a wake-up call for the Northern Territory Government that they need to urgently invest in purpose-built, youth facilities” said Ms Barson.

Ms Barson said rather than continuing with outdated and harmful practices, all Australian jurisdictions should develop policies which are in the best interests of children, and which do not risk being cruel, inhuman or degrading.

“Australia, like all countries that have signed up to the Convention, needs to continue to respect and uphold contemporary and appropriate standards when it comes to the treatment of children in detention,” said Ms Barson. 

A copy of the Committee’s findings can be found online here.


For further information or comments, please contact:
Ruth Barson, HRLC Senior Lawyer, on 0417 773 037 or ruth.barson@hrlc.org.au