In many Australian States, children as young as 10 years old can be held criminally liable. The experiences of children and young people in the juvenile justice system are, at a minimum, extremely concerning. In some cases, children have even been detained in some of the worst adult prisons in Australia.
The juvenile justice system provides more diversionary options than the adult equivalent. Nonetheless, Indigenous young people receive more punitive options at every stage of intervention. Indigenous youth, for example, are less likely to receive warnings and cautions, and more likely to be arrested and have to appear in court. Disturbingly, Indigenous youth are twenty one times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous youth.
It is important to not only consider the impact of the criminal law on children and young people, but to also recognise the long-term effects on families and communities. People who come into early contact with the justice system are more likely to end up in prison as adults, due to them being judged as a ‘reoffender’. The fact that Indigenous youth are more likely to be arrested and made to appear in court than to receive an official warning or caution creates an onset of negative factors that affect the future of young people. For this reason, early intervention is paramount.
The overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the juvenile justice system is caused by a complex array of factors, including institutionalised racism, cultural inappropriateness in the justice system, and a lack of focus on early intervention strategies and diversionary programs. It is clear from a number of human rights instruments, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as government reports, that our current system is not living up to appropriate standards of upholding the rights of the child.
We can do better for our children and young people.
As issues are often complex and involve other aspects of the young person’s life, there is a need to redirect focus and funding into more community resources that focus on dealing with these issues from a broader perspective of a young person’s criminal behaviour. Our tendency to compartmentalise issues is seen in an approach that has often responded to crime and violence with law and order measures. However, this is not the best option for our young people, particularly considering the long-term impacts that contact with the justice system has and the range of alternative diversionary measures that could be used instead.
Inquiries into youth detention centres across Australia have revealed that there are widespread violations of the human rights of children in juvenile detention systems. The problems revealed from various reports and investigations into juvenile detention are lengthy, including over-use of solitary confinement, excessive force, intimidation, assaults and physical abuse by staff, inadequate quantities of food etc. Any depth of exploring the findings of these reports are deeply concerning. The issues of abuse and maltreatment are especially important for Indigenous children as they make up the majority of children detained in juvenile detention centres.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody dealt extensively with this issue. Many of the recommendations designed to remedy the issues include an emphasis on the greater use of diversionary mechanisms. A fundamental recommendation in relation to young people was the need for negotiation between authorities and Aboriginal communities on the causes of offending, and the development of suitable responses (Recommendation 62).
NYEC’s programs provide the opportunity for an alternative response to issues such as youth crime. Addressing youth crime in Moree is a high priority issue in the area and NYEC provides a safe space for children to go that is culturally appropriate and supportive, fostering relationships between youth and mentors. By partnering with local and Indigenous based community organisations, there is a strong foundation on which to build.
Unfortunately, many Indigenous community-based initiatives tend to be inadequately funded and without a legislative framework. This often limits their capacity to develop sustained solutions to problems.
The NYEC team has recently submitted a NESA application in order to become a government endorsed Alternative Education Program, and the NYEC team is working hard to access grants and develop sustainable pathways to funding. We are committed to building this grassroots project to address some of the long-term issues experienced in Moree, helping to provide safe spaces to keep children and young people off the streets and out of the juvenile justice system.
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By Monique Gray
Behrendt et al, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Relations (OUP, 2019, 2nd ed), CH 4.