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Australia’s harsh juvenile detention system ‘a national disgrace’

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The state of Australia’s juvenile detention system has been described as a “national disgrace” as more evidence emerges of the harsh treatment of teenagers at a troubled prison in Perth.

National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds said a task force is needed to solve recurring problems in juvenile detention, adding that she is urging the attorney general to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

“This shouldn’t be left just a matter of state,” she told UKTN Radio on Tuesday.

“We need a national approach, just as we have done with domestic violence, for example.”

Her comments came after more evidence of brutal treatment at Banksia Hill juvenile detention center in Perth was revealed.

Video of a teen being subjected to using a hogtie or folding technique — considered to pose a risk of suffocation or death — aired on UKTN’s Four corners on Monday night.

The technique involves a person’s arms and legs being pressed against their head and agents using their body weight to restrain the individual.

The practice was banned in Queensland in 2017, while the Northern Territory Royal Commission found at the Don Dale Youth Detention Center that it posed “significant risks of injury or death”.

Ms Hollonds said she was shocked by the new reports of assault, but added they were no different from Don Dale’s “horrors”.

“What we need now is accountability for action,” she said.

The WA Department of Justice said prison officers were only authorized to use the folding restraint system as a last resort if there was a safety risk to staff or other inmates.

This comes after WA’s prison services inspector described conditions at Banksia Hill as “inhumane” after a visit in December and raised concerns about 24 suicide attempts at the detention center between January and November last year.

Calls to raise the age of responsibility

Four corners also revealed a report by the Board of Attorneys General, finalized in 2020 but never publicly released, recommended raising the criminal age of responsibility nationwide to 14.

“They know the truth that locking up young children doesn’t make the community any safer… we need to get to grips with this now,” said Ms Hollonds.

“This is an absolute national disgrace.”

The children’s commissioner said she had reached out to Attorney General Mark Dreyfus and other ministers to raise issues about the juvenile justice system, hoping to see a federal government-led approach to resolving the ongoing issues.

“I hope now that we can actually have that conversation about what we are doing nationally to transform juvenile justice in this country,” Ms Hollonds said.

A report released Tuesday also pointed to high juvenile detention rates in Queensland, which the Justice Reform Initiative said have more children in detention than any other state or territory.

The vast majority of young people in custody have yet to be sentenced.

Mindy Sotiri, executive director of the Justice Reform Initiative, said building more prisons, as the Queensland government planned to do with its proposed $500 million juvenile detention expansion, has not deterred crime or rehabilitated offenders.

A group of organizations including Amnesty International, doctors’ groups and the Law Council of Australia have campaigned to raise the criminal age of responsibility to 14 in all states and territories.

Jacqueline Small, president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said more needs to be done to ensure that children are not imprisoned for behavior that is a direct result of their young age.

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– with AAP