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Issue #1691      July 1, 2015

Child detention “at crisis point”

Detention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children around the nation has reached a crisis point, with the worst rates in Western Australia, Amnesty International says.

In a report released last week, the human rights group said Aboriginal youth in WA were 52 times more likely than others to be in detention.

Indigenous youth make up about 6% of people aged 10 to 17 in WA, but represent 79% of all young people in detention. Figures for children aged 10 to 13 are even more disturbing, with almost 90% of those in detention Aboriginal.

“Unless the extremely high rate of Aboriginal youth detention is urgently addressed, an increasing number of Aboriginal young people will move into the adult justice system,” the report says.

Amnesty says reasons for the alarming statistics include a failure to support Indigenous community-led programs, police “discrepancies” in dealing with youths, enforcement of bail conditions, mandatory sentencing laws, and inadequate diagnosis and support for people with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

The research found that when police made contact with children committing alleged offences, they arrested Indigenous people 66% of the time rather than issuing a caution, compared with only 41% of the time for non-Aboriginal children.

Amnesty International says there is also a lack of adequate non-custodial sentencing options, particularly in regional and remote areas. Amnesty Indigenous rights manager Tammy Solonec, a Nigena woman from Derby in the Kimberley, has launched a petition to try to convince WA Attorney-General Michael Mischin to scrap mandatory detention for children.

“During my time as a lawyer I’ve watched too many Indigenous kids get locked up – only to spiral into a life of crime and disadvantage,” Ms Solonec said.

“Everyone has a right to be treated equally. But when an Indigenous child is 52 times more likely to be locked up than a non-Aboriginal child, we know the law is not being applied equally.

“Real solutions”

“This campaign is about real solutions, led and delivered by Aboriginal people.” Ms Solonec said that if children are given a chance instead of being locked up, their lives can be turned around.

“I remember speaking with Sarah [not her real name] from the Fitzroy Valley in WA,” she said. “Her parents split when she was about 10. After this she grew up without a mother, moving between the homes of various family members. She smoked, she drank, and when she was 16 she assaulted someone.

“Sarah was lucky. After the assault she was steered away from trouble when the Aboriginal-led Yiriman Project took her out on country with women Elders.

“She is now employed at a local Aboriginal organisation and is planning to start her own business. Sarah says that her future is promising because of her involvement as a teenager with the Yiriman Project women’s program.”

Amnesty International secretary general Salil Shetty recently visited Australia for the release of a new report, “A brighter tomorrow: Keeping Indigenous kids in the community and out of detention in Australia”.

He called on the government to support Indigenous-led justice reinvestment programs in response to the soaring overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in detention, who are incarcerated at 24 times the rate of other kids across the country.

“Australia has a long and tragic history of removing Indigenous children from their families and communities,” Mr Shetty said.

“I’m inspired by the innovative work Indigenous communities are doing across Australia to bring up a new generation of young people, but the Australian government needs to catch up and fund the programs that have been shown to work in keeping Indigenous kids out of prison, and making communities safer. It’s a win-win situation for all Australians.”

The Koori Mail

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