Australia must back Indigenous expertise to end crisis of children’s incarceration

Indigenous communities are taking new, innovative approaches to keep children out of detention – but their success hinges on Australian government support, to reverse Australia’s crisis of Indigenous youth incarceration, said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty, launching a national report at the National Press Club today.

Salil Shetty is in Australia to call 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 non-Indigenous children.

Overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in detention

Australia locks up Indigenous children, from as young as 10 years old, at one of the highest rates in the world.

Overrepresentation is rising, with Indigenous children making up less than 6% of the population of 10–17 year-olds yet more than half (58 per cent) of young people in detention.

Punitive approach ‘an embarrassment’

“Australia has a long and tragic history of removing Indigenous children from their families and communities. We will see another generation lost to failed Government policies, unless Australia shows the vision to support and fund Indigenous people to be the architects of the solution.”

“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 for all Australians,” said Salil Shetty.

Salil Shetty has described Australia’s punitive approach as “staggering” and “an embarrassment for Australia”.

“In other countries I have visited recently, such as The Netherlands and Mexico, children under 12 are not held criminally responsible. Yet, Australian law holds children criminally responsible from the age of just 10, which is out of line with international standards.”

A brighter tomorrow

The report launched today, ‘A brighter tomorrow: Keeping Indigenous kids in the community and out of detention in Australia’, highlights that Australia is detaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at the highest rate since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 20 years ago.

It lists 16 recommendations for action that the Australian government can take to comply with international human rights obligations, such as ending mandatory sentencing of young people, which only contributes to increasing detention without reducing youth crime.

“Australia needs to make communities safer – but locking up children has been shown not to be the answer,” said Salil Shetty.

Justice reinvestment initiative

Salil Shetty saw first-hand the promise of a new approach on his visit to the NSW town of Bourke on Friday, where community leaders are pioneering the Aboriginal owned and run Maranguka initiative.

They have partnered with non-profit group Just Reinvest NSW to implement the first trial of justice reinvestment in Australia, to reduce youth incarceration rates and make Bourke a safer place to live.

Justice reinvestment works by shifting investment in prisons to investment in communities. The approach increases community safety by addressing why crimes occur in the first place, identifying circuit breakers, building alternative pathways in partnership with community and local agencies, and thereby improving outcomes for low-income children and families.

Reinvestment successful in Texas, USA

In Texas, between 2007 to 2012, the approach led to 2,800 fewer young people behind bars, allowing Texas to close eight juvenile correctional facilities.

Meanwhile, the state’s crime rate dropped to the lowest it had been since 1974.

Indigenous-led approach

The Maranguka–Just Reinvest NSW project is one of the first in the world to trailblaze an Indigenous-led approach to justice reinvestment.

Their model has brought together NSW Police, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, government agencies such as Department of Premier and Cabinet, health, housing, education, employment, Family and Community Services, Aboriginal affairs, philanthropic and community organisations.

Government must support community programs

Amnesty International is calling on Australian Governments to commit long-term funding to ensure the success of the Maranguka-Justice Reinvestment project, and many other community-led programs around the country.

As the US has found, it is far cheaper to invest in communities rather than prisons.

The high cost of detention

In Australia it costs $440,000 per year to detain each child, meaning the cost of just one year of detention could instead put a young Indigenous person through an entire undergraduate medical degree.

Australia has been condemned by the United Nations for breaching its international obligations around the incarceration of Indigenous young peoples, such as for failing to detain children only as a last resort.

“Australia must seize this once-in-a-generation chance to keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children out of prison and make communities safer,” said Salil Shetty.