Break the cycle: End the criminalisation and abuse of kids

The leadership of grandmothers is pivotal to the defence of First Nations youth. Lynette Austin demands the closure of Don Dale in 2016. Photo by Alison Thorne
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“All this pain, I am feeling inside. Eight months in the system has eaten my pride…I am stuck in Don Dale, when I get out, I promise I won’t fail”

These powerful words are from emerging hip hop artist Joseph Ebborn, who raps using the name JRAE. He wrote them while in Don Dale, the infamous juvenile jail in Darwin. Joseph, who is now 18, spent most of his teens locked up. He had a traumatic childhood and was placed in out-of-home care — treading the well worn path leading to incarceration by age 13. He didn’t even have a bank account when he was released in March. But he did have his writing, which he put to music, and talent. He is now on the cusp of a musical career, hoping to break the cycle of incarceration.

For many young people tangled up with child removal and youth detention, the cycle continues, going on to adult prison. Almost 600 kids aged 10 to 13 years are jailed in Australia every year. First Nations children comprise 65% of this younger group. For Indigenous children, the impact of invasion, dispossession and loss of culture is not history — it is lived experience as they struggle with the legacy of generations of state perpetrated trauma. Once inside the brutal detention regime, children are re-traumatised by constant surveillance, strip searches, physical restraints, isolation and lockdowns. It’s like struggling in quicksand for many trying to break free.

A familiar political cycle. In 2016 the ABC broadcast an explosive Four Corners story which revealed the shocking reality of what was happening inside Don Dale (See: Abuse of Aboriginal Kids sparks mass protests — Let’s build a movement to win!, FSO, October 2016.) This sparked mass outrage and a wave of angry protests. Under pressure, the Northern Territory (NT) and federal governments feigned shock. They convened the Royal Commission into Protection and Detention of Children in the NT to provide the appearance of doing something.

The recommendations were released sixteen months later. Among them, closing Don Dale, raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, and providing the necessary social supports for young people and their families. It also reprised key recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, including imprisonment as a last resort.

The Territory government implemented some of the easier recommendations in 2018, but didn’t wait a year before beginning to wind them back!

The August 2020 NT election was a three-way law-and- order contest between the Country Liberal Party, Territory Alliance and Labor, with each party pledging to be toughest. Labor won and launched a crackdown, with youth detention almost doubling in the past year. It passed new laws making it much harder for young people to get bail. It will also spend $2.5 million to re-open abandoned blocks in Don Dale, preparing for an anticipated increase in youth detention.

Ministers shrugged off the loss of a class action that cost the Territory $35 million. This payout will be shared between 1,200 young people mistreated in custody. An amount less than $30 thousand is cold comfort for complainants who must live with their ordeal. The government continues to deny liability and, unsuccessfully, tried to keep the settlement secret.

These issues are not confined to the NT. Across the country, youth are being criminalised and abused.

In Western Australia (WA), more than 250 former inmates of the Banksia Hill Detention Centre have registered to pursue their own class action. The centre, which incarcerates girls and boys, routinely uses solitary confinement. Stewart Levitt, their lawyer, alleges that one young child was kept in isolation for six months and developed blood clots due to lack of mobility.

In Victoria, the state government is expanding the Malmsbury Youth Detention Centre to “meet the expected demand for youth custodial services over time.”

Don’t incarcerate. Right across the country there is a failure to adequately support families, an acute housing crisis, racist over-policing, and laws criminalising addiction and poverty.

Unfair bail laws, which disproportionately impact poor and vulnerable communities, are common (See: Time for a fightback: Victoria’s bail regime creates a sexist and racist catastrophe, FSO, April 2020.) They have a terrible impact on young people, with lives disrupted, especially as those on remand are denied access to education and other support programs available to those who have been sentenced.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, up to 63% of all young people aged from 10 to 17, held in detention on any given night, were on remand. More than half were Indigenous and a massive 78% of all girls locked up had not been sentenced. Since the onset of the pandemic and its impact on public health measures, there has been a drop in unsentenced children held in detention. In some parts of Australia, more kids have been allowed to live in the community while waiting for their court case. This shows it has always been possible. The reduction in numbers of young people detained on remand must not be a temporary measure.

For imprisonment to become a last resort, it is a matter of political both will and resourcing.

Needed is a huge injection of funding to culturally appropriate grassroots programs. For First Nations youth, community-controlled programs are integral to building the pride and resilience needed to heal intergenerational trauma. Programs such as Deadly Connections in NSW, Young Luv run by Djirra in Victoria, and the Deadly Sister Girlz started in WA are good models. More funding is also need for youth programs run by Pacifika, South Sudanese and other communities where kids are disproportionately targeted.

Raise the age. In most countries the age of criminal responsibility is 14. But not in Australia! Despite widespread opposition and international condemnation, children as young as 10 continue to be jailed. The Australian Capital Territory has committed to change this and is drafting legislation. In an all-too-familiar refrain, the Queensland Labor government has ruled out raising the age, promising during the state election last year that it would be “tough on crime.” Other states and territories have not yet committed to change.

It is hard to find a single expert in child and adolescent health and wellbeing who does not back raising the age of criminal responsibility. But there is plenty of opposition from the usual quarters, with police and police unions dead against the idea.

The campaign to raise the age to at least 14 is gathering steam around the country. Hundreds of thousands have already signed the petition hosted by the Human Rights Law Centre to keep kids in the community. Add your name.

It’s a chasm, not a gap. A new target added to Closing the Gap, the federal government’s plan to reduce First Nations disadvantage, is to reduce the rate of Aboriginal young people in detention by 30% by 2031. Yet, this government cannot even raise the age of criminal responsibility to align with other countries.

Is it any surprise that year after year the government’s annual Closing the Gap report card shows that it fails to meet almost all of the very modest targets.

Locking up kids who need housing, education, healthcare and culturally appropriate support services is a crime! And federal, state and territory governments are all recidivists. It’s time to break this cycle of criminalising poor and vulnerable youth by creating a new system that meets all our needs.

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