Teens stuck in custody
Bail denied for young people with nowhere to go.
Some courts are unable to grant Indigenous children bail because authorities are unable to find them a place to stay, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.
The problem was highlighted when police, magistrates and community leaders vented their frustration over the inability of governments to reduce the high number of Indigenous children and teens serving time behind bars.
At a recent roundtable discussion in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, the House of Representatives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Committee was presented with a litany of complex and overlapping problems from those working at the coalface of the youth justice system. Committee chair Shayne Neumann (Blair, Qld) said the rates of Indigenous youth in detention were “alarming” and conceded that Australia had gone backwards in its handling of the issue in the past 20 years.
According to witnesses, key factors contributing to the over-representation of Indigenous youths in custody include:
- accommodation shortages resulting in children languishing in detention;
- poor program and service coordination;
- in adequate help for those with drug, alcohol and mental health problems; and
- lack of support for parents dealing with troubled children.
Magistrate Joan Baptie of the Sydney Youth Drug and Alcohol Court told the committee courts are unable to release some young people because authorities have failed to find them somewhere to live.
“That often cannot be resolved and you have government departments that say, ‘that’s fine, just lock them up that will solve the problem of accommodation’,” she said.
”It sure does – but it’s not in this young person’s interest one would have thought because ultimately at some stage they’re going to be released back into the community and they’re going to be angrier and less able to integrate.”
Katherine McFarlane of the NSW Corrective Services Women’s Advisory Council said the consequences for the children and their communities are far-reaching.
“In one instance I was looking at a file [and] a child had been in custody three weeks on what was an offensive language charge – a no jail offence – they were in jail for three weeks because no one could come up with anything,” she said.
“You get this really bizarre situation where the child’s being punished because no one can get organised enough to provide a safe environment for them.
“What that does to the child in terms of their belief and trust in the justice system is really questionable.”
The committee was also told communities were in a “state of emergency” as witnesses urged immediate action from governments at all levels struggling to deal with the complexities of the problem.
Australian Institute of Criminology figures show Indigenous youths aged 10-17 are 24 times more likely to be jailed as non-indigenous youths. They are also 16 times more likely to be under supervision and 29 times more likely to be in detention on an average day as other young people.
Governments were urged to fund more programs to keep children on track from an early age, with the suggestion that money be diverted away from prisons and into community support.
Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said while crime rates were generally going down, more Indigenous people were ending up in jail – a situation he described as “troubling”. He called for a bipartisan approach from all governments to address the issue.
“Without wanting to sound negative in any way I do not think there is a single or simple solution to any of this, or a silver bullet. It’s a longterm thing,” he said.
Several witnesses highlighted the problems arising from administrative complexities and a lack of coordination between various agencies, which can hamper those making decisions on how best to help a young person caught up in the system.
Sam Jeffries from the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said those working on the ground need to be given more freedom on where to allocate money.
“There needs to be some untied money for groups, whether it is local governments or state governments, so they have complete flexibility to do things that are outside the normal scope of designing and delivering programs and services,” he said.
Several witnesses also stressed the importance of having strong mentors available for young people to help them make better life choices.
Shane Phillips, chief executive of the Tribal Warrior Association in Redfern, emphasised to the committee how much of a difference mentors can make.“Generational change is what we need. We are in a state of emergency. We cannot afford any more experiments,” he said.
“It’s really simple. We want to help people. We want people who have got some influence, who are worthy of trying to be a good mentor, help other people engage.”
Roy Smith is now working as a paid mentor for Tribal Warriors after overcoming a difficult childhood marred by alcoholism and violence.
He said he tries to show kids their past does not need to dictate their future.
“I try and bring a bit of pride into them about being an Indigenous person,” he said.
Redfern Police Local Area Command Superintendent Luke Freudenstein works closely with Mr Phillips and other Indigenous community leaders. He told the inquiry he has had considerable success in reducing robbery rates through a number of sports programs run by police with the help of organisations such as Tribal Warriors.
“We’re obviously in t-shirts and shorts and we just box with them, and they see us as people who care for them,” he said.
“We’re not just there to arrest them, or to move them on or search them.”
Shayne Neumann said he hoped the committee would make some strong recommendations in its report to parliament.
“We’re tough on juvenile crime but unfortunately when we do that we have a situation where more and more Indigenous youth and young adults are actually caught up in the system,” he said.
“So we’ve got to be tough on the causes of crime and not just on the crime itself and that’s coming through in the evidence.”