Royal commission findings on youth detention will be national moment of reckoning

Royal commission findings on youth detention will be national moment of reckoning

This article first appeared in Fairfax Media.

Within moments of seeing the haunting image of Dylan Voller hooded and strapped to a barbaric restraint chair, the nation erupted in disbelief.

We were unanimous in our outrage — our collective sense of human decency had been shattered.

We rightly demanded to know how scenes that belonged in a gothic horror-show made their way into a contemporary youth justice system.

How children could be left to languish in solitary confinement; how the abuses in Don Dale went unchecked for so long before journalists and advocates exposed a system rotten to its core.

This Friday Australia will be provided with answers.

After almost 12 months of hearing evidence from experts, ministers, children and their families and communities, the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory will deliver its findings into what went wrong, and how to ensure the horrors are never repeated.

This will be a moment of reckoning for justice in Australia. The test for our governments will be in how they respond.

The NT Government should accept each and every recommendation and commit to time-bound implementation. There should be no picking and choosing recommendations.

Likewise, if the Northern Territory is to achieve change, the Commonwealth Government must commit to resourcing implementation.

Beyond this, the gravity of human rights abuses revealed over the past 12 months in youth jails in every corner of this country demands that we go much further.

Almost immediately after the Don Dale expose we found out that children in Queensland had been subjected to similar degradation: stripped naked, threatened with dogs, hog tied.

Then came NSW and revelations that children were being locked away in extended solitary confinement.

Then the Victorian Government's cruel and illegal decision to move 15- and 16-year-olds into the state's most notorious maximum security adult jail.

Then we heard about children being left to soak in their own urine in WA. Last week it was routine strip-searches on vulnerable children in the ACT. And on it goes.

In the months following Don Dale it has become painfully clear that abuse in youth jails is widespread, severe and systemic and that all states and territories have a case to answer.

Australia will not close the dark chapter of Don Dale until we hold our governments to account for fixing broken youth justice systems.

First and foremost, states and territories should raise the gateway age for children entering into the criminal justice system from 10 to 14 years.

Australia is out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to jailing primary-school aged children.

We are repeatedly rebuked by United Nations child rights experts for entangling children who are not yet teenagers in the web of the criminal justice system. And we do it with gusto: around 600 children under the age of 14 are locked away each year.

What this means in practice is children as young as 10 are removed from their families and communities, taken to a hostile, barbed-wire facility, strip-searched, allowed limited access to schooling, friends and family, and forced to spend hours in a concrete, sterile cell, usually the size of a car-parking spot.

Like so many injustices in this country, Indigenous peoples are forced to bear the brunt of it.

Leading criminologist, Chris Cunneen, found that of the approximately 600 under 14-year-olds locked up each year, nearly 70 per cent are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Hoping that children come out of a youth prison reformed, ready for a second chance at life, is as foolish as trying to grow a sunflower in the dark. Prisons are designed to castigate, confine, criminalise and therefore crush people.

This is why – in addition to raising the age – state and territory governments must stop siphoning children into prisons.

If we look to our neighbours, New Zealand is doing just that. They're cutting the number of children getting trapped in the criminal justice system by diverting around eighty percent of kids into community-support programs. And it's working.

By the end of 2015 the number of children charged and hauled before New Zealand's youth court was the lowest it had been in 20 years.

The Royal Commission will provide us with a roadmap for fixing our youth justice systems, and there is an abundance of evidence and international good-practice examples to draw from along the way but what we ultimately need is political will.

This is why the Federal Government must step in and lead the charge for change. Nothing short of wholesale transformation of our youth justice systems will suffice.

Don Dale is a horrific reminder of what happens when governments fail to respect the rights of children and instead guzzle from the poisoned well of "tough on crime" politics.

The Turnbull Government's response to Don Dale was swift and decisive, calling for the Royal Commission in record time. But how our leaders respond to the Royal Commission's recommendations will be the true test of their conviction.

The only thing more horrifying than the abuse of children in youth jails would be if we did nothing meaningful about it.

Ruth Barson is a director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. She has previously worked as youth justice lawyer in the Northern Territory representing children in Don Dale.