Originally published on the 8th July 2011 on The Punch.
‘I’ve been in and out of here since I was 10.’
These are the words of a 17-year-old Indigenous boy incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre in Perth Western Australia. He was one of ten boys participating in a 2009 United Nations youth representative consultation. Eight of these ten boys were Indigenous. Sadly this overrepresentation of Indigenous children is reflected in juvenile detention facilities nation-wide.
Herein is Australia’s neglected crisis. Data in recent years shows that the overrepresentation has become so extreme that Indigenous girls and boys are 28 times more likely to be imprisoned than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
The tragedy in this trend is that the majority of Indigenous children are imprisoned for petty, non-serious crimes. This 17-year-old boy spoke of a childhood of violence, abuse and homelessness. Eventually at age 10 he committed a petty crime out of pure desperation and was imprisoned. Seven years later imprisonment has continued to be viewed as the apparent ‘solution’ to his ongoing deprivation and subsequent repeated offending.
Despite all the adversity he had faced, this boy still had a bright spark about him. However his sense of hope was also marred by his state of limbo: he wanted to change his lifestyle, but lacked any measure of support to be able to do so.
As Australian youth representatives to the United Nations, we have heard all too often stories such as this boy’s in our work across Australia. Yet we have also been inspired by the leadership being shown by young Indigenous Australians in the community.
Given that around 60% of the Indigenous population is under the age of 25, all Indigenous people can enjoy all their rights in our generation’s lifetime, if Australians as a whole show leadership in supporting Indigenous youth.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Australia’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This treaty sets out the binding obligations Australia has made to ensure the basic human rights of all its children and adolescents. Under articles 37 and 40, Australia has made itself bound to only arrest, detain or imprison a child as a ‘measure of last resort’ and to promote the availability of alternatives to institutional care.
To its detriment, Australia is failing to meet its obligations under these articles. Indigenous children, more than anyone, are suffering the consequences. In October this year the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the body established to monitor the Convention’s implementation, will hear from children and young people directly on how Australia can lift its game.
Child-focused non-government organisations have published a report to take to the Committee entitled ‘Listen to Children.’ This report captures the voices of imprisoned Indigenous children and through them highlights some of the underlying causes and solutions to the crisis of Indigenous juvenile detention.
In the report, an 18-year-old boy refers to the more punitive measures inflicted by police on Indigenous children: ‘they don’t treat us the same as they treat other people and it’s unfair on us.’ This sentiment is shared by many Indigenous youth around the country.
For instance, in UN youth consultations in Brisbane, 2009, Indigenous girls described police as ‘vultures, just waiting for us to do something wrong’. Similarly in Dubbo, Indigenous children spoke of the overt harassment, targeting and violence they had been subjected to by police. One child put it simply, ‘out here the police act like God’.
This ‘over-policing’ is also cited by a recently published House of Representatives’ inquiry entitled ‘Doing Time – Time for Doing’ as an issue affecting ‘the rate at which Indigenous people come into contact with the criminal justice system’. The inquiry notes that while the relations between police and Indigenous youth in some communities is positive, there are many examples where the relationship is spoilt by ‘attitudes of distrust, suspicion and fear’.
On a fundamental level, Australia must redefine juvenile detention as a ‘last resort’ for children and redirect investment into a child rights-based approach to youth and crime; one which supports early intervention, counselling and mentoring, diversionary strategies and vocational and educational training.
These alternatives to imprisonment must be given serious attention in light of the inherent cracks in Australia’s juvenile justice system. As the Listen to Children and Doing Time reports suggest, nothing highlights these cracks more than the steady increase in the number of children imprisoned and the skyrocketing rates of recidivism, particularly amongst Indigenous youth.
The system is broken. Australia must employ and promote rehabilitative alternatives that enable, not risk the positive and constructive futures of Indigenous children.
Of course Indigenous juvenile crime is symptomatic of the need for more integrated and consultative implementation of funds for Indigenous child health and education. In this implementation, it is critical that Indigenous children themselves are participants in all decisions which affect them.
Our experiences as youth representatives have given us every hope that Australia can be a place fit for all its children. The words of a 17-year-old boy, ‘I’ve been in and out of here since I was 10,’ speak to a national crisis that will take the leadership of all Australians to solve. Together we can end that boy’s state of limbo and help him build a future.
Article by Chris Varney, Samah Hadid and Benson Saulo who have served as Australian youth representatives to the United Nations between the years 2009-2011. The Listen to Children report can be viewed at www.childrights.org.au