Australia’s human rights reputation has been savaged in a new report by Amnesty International. The report is highly critical of Australia’s detention of Aboriginal children for minor offences.
The Amnesty report, A brighter tomorrow: Keeping Indigenous kids in the community and out of detention in Australia, focuses on the crisis of Aboriginal child detention. The report says rates of Aboriginal youth detention are higher now than they were 20 years ago.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 10 to 17 are 24 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous youths. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people make up about 5% of the Australian population of 10 to 17 year olds, but they comprise 59% of those in detention.
WA FIGURES ALARMING
While those figures are disturbing, Amnesty considered the figures for Western Australia to be so alarming that the state deserved special criticism.
The report said: "In Western Australia, the situation is significantly worse than the national picture. Between July 2013 and June last year, Indigenous young people were on average 53 times more likely" to be jailed than their non-Indigenous peers.
About 6% of young people aged between 10 and 17 in WA are Indigenous, but they make up almost 80% of offenders in the state's juvenile prison system, up from an also appalling 50% in 2005.
The report said Aboriginal children who break the law in Western Australia are less likely to get off with just a caution than non-Aboriginal children, less likely to receive bail and proportionally less likely to be referred to diversionary programs.
Amnesty International secretary-general Salil Shetty was in Australia early this month to launch the report. He said the Australian government must lose its racist perspective: "Frankly I don’t think there’s any other way of putting it rather than saying this is racial prejudice," he said. "Because essentially the view that the Aboriginal community can’t manage their own affairs is a highly discriminatory approach.”
The report noted that Australia no longer publishes weekly disaggregated figures for the number of children in detention, which makes trends difficult to track.
“That state and federal governments aren’t even keeping or sharing proper records on this detention is a scandal,” Shetty said.
Amnesty International Australia's national director, Claire Mallinson, said there were a range of reasons for so many children to be locked up.
"The justice system seems to be stacked against Indigenous children, there's a real lack of appropriate bail options which means children are being locked up because they don't have anywhere else to go and there's also a lack of legal services,” she said.
"We need to ensure Aboriginal community-led programs are adequately supported, that there is an investigation into police discrepancy in giving cautions, that there is strict monitoring of bail conditions and a lot more options in terms of providing bail."
The report says WA’s bail laws actually disadvantage Aboriginal young people, because they require them to be signed into the care of an available “responsible adult”, and the adult cannot have a criminal record.
Mallinson said strict curfew checks, in which police shine torches in the windows of a bail address several times a night, also deter people from taking responsibility for a child on bail.
WA is the only state that imposes mandatory jail terms on young offenders. Last year, a United Nations committee recommended WA review its mandatory sentencing laws.
Mallinson agreed, saying the first step to reducing the number of children in detention is to repeal the mandatory sentencing laws that affect minors. Instead, the WA government is pressing ahead with plans to toughen the state's mandatory sentencing laws and tighten the definition of the three-strikes rule.
Mallinson says if passed, the changes will lead to more Aboriginal children behind bars. "The Premier has made some very strong positive verbal commitments to reducing the over-representation of Indigenous children in detention, but this Bill is going to make it worse," she said.
“The way the legislation is proposed, you could have a 16-year-old girl who is pressured into acting as a lookout for her boyfriend, and if he thumps someone in the house she is spending a mandatory three years in detention.”
WA premier Colin Barnett made a public commitment to reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates after a Yamitji woman, Ms Dhu, died in custody.
However, in a statement released in response to the Amnesty report, corrective services minister Joe Francis said the government makes “no apology for detaining young people who commit violent crimes”.
He implied that all Aboriginal young people who are currently in detention are either serving a sentence or are on remand for “extremely serious crimes”, including murder.
Without supplying any details, he said the government “has implemented, and is developing, a range of initiatives to reduce the incarceration rate of young Aboriginal people”.
Amnesty has called for more Aboriginal input into measures to reduce youth incarceration rates. The report said: "This will contribute to ensuring that culturally relevant and effective solutions are available to address the underlying causes of offending, such that detention is a measure of last resort for Indigenous young people."
It recommended that Australian governments immediately set justice targets to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison.
"The importance of the justice target here is that we need to have a clear goal as to where we want to get to," said Shetty. "So then you have strategies to achieve that goal. And most importantly you need to have accountability. At the end of the day if you have a lot of money chucked at these problems and nothing coming out, who’s accountable?"
But Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has repeatedly ruled out creating a justice target. "The Australian Government is not pursuing a justice target," said a spokesperson. "The key to this is getting children to school, adults to work and making communities safer."
Mallinson said the WA government should redirect spending away from detention into community-based diversionary programs, especially those programs being run by Aboriginal people. Only two of the 12 community-based programs that receive government support are run by Aboriginal people.
“There are programs, like the Yiriman project in the Kimberley, that are able to do great work, but they are the exception not the rule,” she said.
Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls is a mentor for the Wirripanda Foundation, an Aboriginal-run mentoring program for at-risk kids. He works on the Deadly Brother Boys program, which connects young Aboriginal boys with their culture and their elders, and shows them that they have options outside of going to prison.
“A lot of our mob, they’re not scared to go to jail, because of the fact that they have got their family members in there, they got their uncle or their cousin. Part of what we do is going in there and educate them and say hey, you could all be on the outside together.”