IN AUSTRALIA, CHILDREN AS YOUNG AS TEN CAN BE JAILED.
THE VAST MAJORITY BEING LOCKED UP ARE INDIGENOUS.
JUDGE HYLTON QUAIL, PRESIDENT OF THE WESTERN AUSTRALIAN CHILDREN’S COURT, HAS RULED ON HUNDREDS OF THESE CASES.
HE SHARES HIS PERSPECTIVE ON THE CYCLE OF YOUTH INCARCERATION.
Every kid that comes before me…
Their life story in almost every case is a tragedy.
There’s little to distinguish them in that way.
It is still the case that the proportion and the rate of Aboriginal youth incarceration is much higher and unacceptably higher than in relation to non-Indigenous youths.
And we’ve known that for a long time. While our efforts have been successful insofar as reducing the overall numbers in detention, the proportion is still really disturbing.
A lot of the children that come to us are often so damaged by reason of their early experiences that it’s very, very difficult to address the underlying causes of their problems.
The vast majority of these children will have a background of family breakdown and dysfunction, and that is the cause of the crime. It’s easy to say ‘well they’re using drugs, they’re running around, they’re damaging stuff’, but the causes go back to what happened to them when they were 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 years old.
And that does tie in unfortunately with even pre-birth experiences with their parents; the mothers having alcohol or methamphetamine or other drugs pre-birth which results in cognitive damage.
And so we get a lot of very damaged young kids, who through no fault of their own don’t have not only cognitive skills but cognitive ability to even understand the rules.
You’ve literally got a lifelong issue which you then have to manage, both to try and give kids the best quality of life they might have and to balance that against community protection.
There’s a big debate going on at the moment in relation to the appropriate age of criminal responsibility. There are good arguments in favour of raising that age because of the science behind cognitive development in children generally.
there are also plenty of young kids that do seem to have that capacity who commit serious crimes and the community would expect them to be held responsible for those crimes.
If you raise the age of criminal responsibility, the government is going to need to step into that space to provide the support for those children who are doing serious things but who might no longer be criminally responsible for them.
You have to have a plan in place, because otherwise the community’s not going to be protected.
The fundamental principle in relation to detention - whether it is for adults or children - is that
And there is no lack of will and there is no lack of money. Governments have been very good at funding youth justice and alternatives to detention. But governments in the end can’t be parents.
But with some kids you do get to the point where everything has been tried and the offences are so serious that community protection is a real consideration. Community protection requires them to be in detention.
The child detention centre at Banksia Hill is not at all like an adult prison. Although the kids are deprived of their liberty and locked up, the whole focus of their time in detention is rehabilitation. There’s a school. There are programmes.
No one comes into their room at night, they’ve got structure, they’ve got good food, sport, education. If you’re going to detain a kid, it’s as good as we can do.
What happens is for a lot of those kids, they’re released from Banksia and they go into home environments which are not nearly so supportive and often unfortunately where they’re exposed to drug abuse, substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, poverty.
And it [reoffending] is inevitable in those cases, regardless of how much external support is invested. Very quickly those kids reoffend and we’ve got them back again. Unless kids have a family and a place to go and a home to live in
The criminal justice system is the The End Of The Line.
There’s only so much we can do."