Federal leadership urgently needed to solve national youth justice crisis


Federal Government leadership and a cohesive new national approach to ensuring that the justice system stops the systemic abuse of children in detention is urgently needed, says the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

“We are seeing extraordinary mental and physical abuse of young people in detention, and it is happening all over Australia. This crisis requires a new approach driven by the Commonwealth with the support of the states and territories,” said Greg Barns SC, national criminal justice spokesperson, Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

“In this month alone, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner raised the appalling ongoing abuse of vulnerable children at detention centres in WA and Tasmania. This week, the Queensland Government is lauding its harsh youth bail laws because a review by a former police commissioner says it is putting more children in detention and, on the ABC’s 4 Corners, we saw horrifying mistreatment of children in WA and the NT.

“In summary, in Australia there is ongoing and systemic violation of the rights of young people. It should be called what it is – state-sanctioned abuse.

“The system is broken and needs a complete overhaul at a national level that draws on innovative and positive examples from overseas and takes learnings from some of the community-led local programs that are having an impact in Australia.”

The ALA is calling on federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to work, in conjunction with relevant federal colleagues, to ensure that states and territories end the punitive approach to young people in the justice system.

The ALA, like many other legal groups, has been calling for the reform of the youth justice system for many years.

“The evidence shows that locking up children is not effective. It does not have a deterrent effect and it causes further trauma,” said Mr Barns SC. “The current approach has an alarmingly disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth, who make up 65 per cent of the child prison population despite making up only six per cent of the population.

“Detention of young people should only ever occur as an absolute last resort when there is no other option to ensure their safety and the safety of others in the community. The community must always be confident that children are protected from harm while under the care and supervision of the state.

“The Convention on the Rights of the Child is contravened by state-sanctioned abuse in prison. This abuse has a long-term traumatic impact on a child’s life, and it will continue to expose governments to compensation claims for the mental and physical injuries caused.

“As a start, we must raise the age of criminal responsibility in all states and territories to 14 but we also need to address the causes of youth crime and provide the necessary community support systems.”

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