- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #2044
Photo: Mitchel Lensink (@mitchellens.ink) – www.rawpixel.com Public domain.
Australian governments are quick to point the finger at human rights abuses in other countries, but Australia’s record is nothing short of disgraceful when it comes to our children. The latest legislation before Queensland Parliament targets vulnerable children, the majority of whom are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, some as young as 10 years old.
85 per cent of children in Queensland detention centres are on remand, not gone to trial. Many will not be found guilty. Almost two thirds of them are Indigenous.
The Strengthening Community Safety Bill 2023 was introduced by the Labor government on 21st February with the intention of passing it this month. The government claims it is “designed to break the cycle of offending by serious repeat offenders, with stronger penalties supporting the efforts of police and the courts to reduce offending and hold criminals accountable.”
Children as young as 10 years old are being locked up in what are referred to as detention centres – softer sounding terminology for prisons. They are there because of a racist and punitive system which fails to address mental health issues, intergenerational trauma, poverty, homelessness, cognitive disabilities, and other vulnerabilities. Many of these children are in the care (sic) of the state.
The bill criminalises children as young as 10 who breach bail conditions, such as failing to attend an appointment at the police station, and carries hefty sentences for minor offences.
The maximum penalty for unlawful use of a motor vehicle is increased from seven to ten years. The sentence rises to 14 years if the offence is committed at night, where the offender uses violence or threatens violence, is armed or pretends to be armed, is in company, or damages or threatens to damage any property.
There will be funding to lock up more children with two new youth detention centres.
Dedicated teams of police and youth justice workers will develop a rapid response targeting young people “at risk of offending and young people on bail.” They will prowl the streets seeking out potential offenders.
“This legislation is going to ensure that generations of children are criminalised, and let’s be clear, most of those children are going to be Aboriginal,” said Debbie Kilroy, CEO of Sisters Inside.
The bill is based on a policy of racism and genocide.
“What we need to do is stop harming everyone. Stop harming the children who have already been so harmed by the system and start funding the programs that deal with that harm and work to move children away from being locked up, away from using harm to cope with what has happened to them.”
OVERRIDES HUMAN RIGHTS ACT
Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall expressed alarm, saying that the legislation would override the protections of the Human Rights Act, a fact that the government unflinchingly acknowledges. It also overrides the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“The government accepts that these provisions are incompatible with human rights,” Police Minister Mark Ryan said, trying to justify the bill. “In the government’s view, this presents an exceptional crisis situation constituting a threat to public security”.
No evidence is presented of any such “exceptional crisis situation.”
“The measures introduced are predicated on a flawed perception that recidivist children will respond positively to punitive measures. As countless reviews have found, including from former Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson, such measures do not work to reduce crime and they do not protect the rights of victims,” McDougall said.
More than sixty organisations and individuals who work or research in this field issued an open letter to the Queensland Parliament, “Stop Youth Crime – Get Smarter Not Tougher.” They call for a bipartisan approach, that Queensland communities “do not deserve political point-scoring about who is the toughest on crime.”
“Locking children up does not free communities from crime. There is overwhelming evidence that youth detention does not work to deter crime, rehabilitate, or make communities safer. In fact, the experience of being incarcerated increases the likelihood of children offending. Almost all children who are imprisoned in youth detention in Queensland reoffend within 12 months of their release.”
“LET FIRST NATIONS LEADERS LEAD”
Instead, the letter calls for an evidence-based solution. “When First Nations leaders and organisations have been able to design and manage responses to youth crime within their communities, the results have been impressive.
“Governments need to get out of the way and let First Nations leaders lead. This means making a genuine commitment to self-determination by First Nations peoples and resourcing of their communities to deliver local responses that they, more than anyone else, know will work best.”
“Research by the Queensland Family and Child Commission and others has found that most children in detention have experienced violence within their homes, poverty, homelessness or the absence of a safe place to call home, and/or exposure to alcohol and other substance misuse.”
“We must address these issues by tackling child poverty, collectively ending youth homelessness, addressing the impact of family violence on children, and increasing the number and range of specialised youth mental health services, alcohol and drug treatment services, child protection, family support, early education and mentoring.
“Get tougher on the causes of youth crime – it will represent a far better, less costly and more effective investment of taxpayers’ dollars in achieving community safety,” The letter says.
“In Queensland, we have become desensitised to the practice of holding children in police cells for days and weeks at a time. We have heard troubling accounts of up to 11 children held for long periods in a single cell with only one toilet. This would be unacceptable in any jurisdiction, but for it to occur in Australia’s newest human rights jurisdiction is particularly distressing,” the Human Rights Commissioner said.
These children being held in adult watch houses can be as young as 10. “Some children have been held there for up to 30 days at a time,” The Youth Advocacy Centre says. “These facilities are severely inadequate for children to stay in.”
Apart from the totally inappropriate conditions and lack of opportunities for visits by family, there can be serious mental impacts on the children. Queensland Police Service staff are not trained to deal with children in this situation. And the children are being held in close proximity to adult prisoners.
“Many children in this situation are victims of abuse, violence, or neglect, and are deserving of support to assist in healing and prevent continued offending. The traumatic experience of a watch house stay is very damaging to children and does not address criminal behaviour but instead exacerbates it.”
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly states that “Children should be arrested, detained or imprisoned only as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. They must be treated with respect and care, and be able to keep in contact with their family.” This is not happening in Queensland.
Kilroy is urging the government to put an end to the family policing system which sees Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being forcibly removed from their families because of racism and poverty.
“Currently the State can steal a baby, a child, from their family for lack of resources or support and then hand the baby, the child, to another family – a ‘foster family,’ who the State then provides all the resources and support to,” Debbie Kilroy said.
“The State needs to end the suffering and fund families to stay together.” The additional $42 million being allocated to hotspot policing should be redirected to proven community solutions.
A HUMANE APPROACH
Australia is one of the few countries in the developed world that has not raised the age of criminal responsibility to 14. It has only been done in some states, but not in Queensland.
The Youth Advocacy Centre’s Orange Paper 2 proposes a 10-point plan for addressing youth offending. Its plan its centred around addressing the causes of youth offending by such means as providing support for families; addressing housing and homelessness issues; through the education system; providing mental health and increasing the provision of detox and rehab facilities; and providing an intensive, individualised therapeutic response for those in detention.
As Monique Hurley from the Human Rights Law Centre told The Diplomat: “children belong in playgrounds and schools, never in prisons and police cells.”