20:03, December 25 247 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-25 20:03:09
When we put children in prison we condemn them to fail

The youth detention centre in Alice Springs is a short walk from the adult prison. When the children turn 18 they “graduate” and get shifted a couple of minutes down the road to the place where some of them will spend large portions of their adult lives.

This graduation alone should make it clear that there is something fundamentally broken with a criminal justice system that catches children and spits adults out into the prison system. The fact that it feels normal – even inevitable – to many of these young people that at some point they’ll move up the road to the “big house” is surely one of the clearest indications that we’ve failed these children.

One teenager told me not to worry when I visited him at the big house as he had an uncle and a cousin there. He had been moved down the road on his 18th birthday in what the statistics tell us is a depressingly common rite of passage. He reassured me that it was better anyway at the big house; they get more time outside of their cells and in the prison yards.



A 2005 study found that 90% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youths who appeared in a children’s court went on to appear in an adult court within eight years. Over a third of them received a prison sentence later in life.

Just as predictable as the cycle that churns children through youth detention and pumps them into adult prisons are the factors that push these kids into the criminal justice system in the first place.

Children in out of home care are 16 times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than the rest of the population. Many children are locked up on remand because their families are living in insecure housing or homelessness and there is nowhere else for the courts to send them. A Victorian snapshot survey of kids in custody found that 62% of the young people had been expelled or suspended from school. Rates of mental illness and disability are higher than in the general community. Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children are grossly overrepresented – in the Northern Territory every single child in youth detention is Aboriginal.

By failing to address the deep inequalities in our community, and by actively promoting law and order strategies such as increased policing, stricter bail conditions and more punitive sentences, governments are not just failing to prevent children (particularly Aboriginal children) from entering the broken criminal justice system, they are actively driving them to it.

The youth detention centres in Alice Springs and Darwin are reportedly understaffed and plagued with critical incidents. Earlier this year the official visitor called for the Alice Springs youth detention centre to be shut down after finding evidence of assaults, children subjected to long lockdowns and six children sleeping in a cell designed for two.

As evidence delivered at the royal commission revealed, children were routinely locked in their cells for days on end. They lose their tempers and break things. They try to break out. There are child on staff incidents. There are staff on child incidents. The children are then charged with more criminal offences for behaviour that is entirely predictable and entirely explicable. It becomes painfully clear that we’ve locked these children in a catch 22.

When these children are released (often with unrealistic conditions that they will fail to meet, be re-arrested and sent straight back in) they carry the memories of being treated like animals with them into the outside world. They absorb into their muscle memory the frustration and powerlessness of being trapped, being denied phone calls to family, being denied access to school and spending hours and hours with nothing to do.

One child told me that he was trying very hard to stay out of trouble but he could feel himself getting “hot” behind his eyes. He had been locked in his cell for four days.

Recently there was an incident at the Don Dale youth detention centre that saw armed police brought in, tear gas deployed and the school burnt down. The ABC revealed that the cost of repairs to the centre would be more than $1m.

The more important question for us to be asking is what is the cost of places like Don Dale to these children’s lives and to our community? At reportedly $1,400 to keep a child locked up each day, what is the cost to our community of setting children up for a lifetime in and out of prison?

There is a national campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years old. This would be a welcome step in giving some of these young people a few more chances to avoid the clutches of the criminal justice system. But it’s not enough to delay the inevitable. We must also take collective responsibility for the children in our communities – and we must hold our governments accountable when they fail them.

In the Northern Territory the majority of youths in detention are on remand. Court proceedings have not been completed. These children have not been found guilty and they should not be in prison. However, the Northern Territory is in the midst of a housing crisis. People are seeking housing support at greater rates than anywhere else at the country. And yet because the government has not met people’s’ basic needs to safe and secure shelter, children are spending the night at the police watch house and then weeks in the youth detention centre.

Housing, intergenerational trauma, racism, over-policing, removing children from their families and a blind adherence to punitive approaches to youth crime – instead of exploring justice reinvestment, diversionary programs and Aboriginal run and controlled service delivery – have all contributed to the chasm that we’re pushing these young people into. When we put children in prison we condemn them to fail. It is our collective responsibility to keep them out.

Sophie Trevitt is a lawyer based Alice Springs working for an Aboriginal legal aid service. These are her personal views

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