Rates Of Aboriginal Youth Detention In WA Could Breach International Obligations, Report Warns

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Over 70 per cent of youth on remand and awaiting sentencing in Western Australia are Aboriginal, a new Amnesty report has revealed, raising concerns that the state is contravening international obligations that say locking up children should be a last resort.

The international advocacy group has raised concerns that Aboriginal youth in the state are being refused place bail and placed in detention centres largely because there is nowhere else for them to go.

Amnesty International released its latest result into the Indigenous incarceration crisis today ‘There Is Always A Brighter Future’, focusing on the spiralling jailing rates of Aboriginal youth in Western Australia.

While nationally Aboriginal youth are 26 times more likely to be placed in detention than their non-Indigenous counterparts, in Western Australia the figures are much higher. In fact, in 2013-2014, it was the highest it had been in five years.

Aboriginal youth in the state are 53 times more likely to be placed in detention than non-Aboriginal youth, despite only making up 6 per cent of the population. In the 10-13 year age group, nine out of 10 kids in juvenile detention are Aboriginal.

One in 77 Aboriginal boys is in detention in Western Australia at any given time.

Bunuba leader June Oscar calls the statistics “horrifying” in the foreword of the report, and says there is a perception from government and the rest of the community the problem is “too hard to change” and that the “unconscionable reality” has become “normalised”. But Ms Oscar says there are “practical reforms” that can be undertaken to bring about positive change.

The report finds that 72 per cent of the juvenile population on remand are Aboriginal. 50 per cent of the total juvenile detention population are on remand – where their bail has been refused, and they are awaiting sentencing. The report finds this remand population, and the overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth contributes to the spiralling black incarceration crisis.

“Remand in police custody and then in detention is detrimental to the best interests of the child and more needs to be done to prevent unnecessary periods of remand in police custody for children in order to ensure that arrest and detention are measures of last resort,” the report says.

Western Australia is the only state in the country where a child is released on bail only if a responsible adult or welfare agency signs a bail undertaking. The report says there is often difficulties in finding an adult the lack of alternative bail accommodation contributes to the high numbers of Aboriginal kids in detention awaiting sentencing.

Aboriginal youth are being locked up on remand largely due to a lack of other accommodation. This is in contravention of Australia’s international obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says locking up children should be a last resort the report says.

The report states that police, who are the first to decide whether a child is granted bail, often refuse bail because of concerns over the child’s welfare if an adult can’t be found, or the Department of Child Protection and Family Support (DCP) is not available.

But the Children’s Court awards bail two out of three cases when it has been refused by police.

The refusal of bail can have traumatic consequences for Aboriginal youth, particularly if they are from regional or remote WA. The only remand centre in Western Australia is in Perth, so Aboriginal youth are often forced to travel long distances, where cost of travel can inhibit their relatives from visiting, the report notes.

The Amnesty report also raises concerns about the role of the DCP in refusing bail undertakings, saying that the Department would “sometimes refuse to sign a bail undertaking as the responsible person for Aboriginal youth people in their care”.

There are concerns that “children have nonetheless remained in Banksia Hill detention centre for significant periods of time before the Department signs the responsible person undertaking”.

This is often due to a lack of suitable accommodation.

There has been no formal agreement between the Department of Child Protection and Family Support (DCP) and the Department of Corrections despite a 2008 recommendation for the two to work together.

There is also no formal arrangement between DCP and DCS for children with significant mental health issues or complex needs to be placed in bail hostels funded by corrective services.

Even when a child is placed in crisis accommodation by DCP, they receive breakfast only and are forced to find other food for the rest of the day.

“These young people have been granted bail but are not provided with a suitable place to stay while on bail remaining in detention,” the report says.

The report also raises concerns about the role of Aboriginal organisations in designing and implementing diversionary programs. Of the 12 organisations that are funded to deliver preventative strategies, only two are Aboriginal. And those services are critically underfunded.

While the Department of Corrective Services budget allotted only $7.83 million to those strategies last financial year, it allocated $46.8 million to detaining Aboriginal youth.

Amy McQuire

A Darumbul woman from central Queensland, Amy McQuire is the former editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine.

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