Indigenous children in Queensland police watchhouses are a “death in custody waiting to happen”, calls to raise age of criminal responsibility to at least 14

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Indigenous children in Queensland police watchhouses are a “death in custody waiting to happen”, calls to raise age of criminal responsibility to at least 14

13 May 2019
 

Change the Record has condemned the practice of police holding children in watchhouses in Queensland, ahead of Four Corners tonight which exposes horrific abuses of children as young as 10 years old.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being cruelly abused in police watchhouses - losing fingers, being placed with alleged sex offenders, attempting suicide, being denied food and medical treatment, held in solitary confinement. This is a death in custody waiting to happen,” said Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of Change the Record.

“All children must be immediately removed from police watchhouses before a fatal tragedy occurs. The Queensland Government has had enough time to transfer 17-year-olds back into the youth justice system. The Government can immediately ease the burden on prisons by raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years, making sure our young kids are in community with the culturally safe care and supports they need to thrive.”

Fifty-two of the files investigated refer to children aged 14 or under. Australia lags behind the rest of the world, with a minimum age of criminal responsibility of 10 years old in all states and territories, compared with the global median age of 14. Almost 60% of children in prison in Queensland are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children; often close to 100% in Townsville’s youth prison.

“It is barbaric that an Aboriginal boy under 14 held in these horrific conditions for over 34 days was deemed permanently unfit to plead, having the cognitive age of 6 years old. There is no justification for holding these kids in watchhouses, the answer is raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years, not building more prisons,” said Damian Griffis, co-chair of Change the Record.

“Building more youth prisons is a guaranteed way to lock up the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Queensland, especially kids with a disability. Instead, we need to see Aboriginal-led prevention and diversion programs, justice reinvestment, culturally safe services and supports in place that we know will work for our kids and families.”

Former Commissioner of the Northern Territory Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children, Mick Gooda says it is time for Queensland and all Australian Governments to take action.

“Queensland needs to take heed of the lessons from the Northern Territory Royal Commission. Police watchhouses are not safe places for children, and building more prisons is not the answer. I encourage the Queensland Government, and all Australian Governments, to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years. This, along with Indigenous-led prevention and diversion, are immediate solutions that can put an end to this crisis,” said Mr Gooda.

Four Corners will expose abuses that indicate breaches of domestic and international law, with two children being held for 33 days or more. Most children in watchhouses are on remand and many have been removed from their families through child protection.

“Our children must not be imprisoned due to government failure to address bail issues and to prevent children from being removed from our families. Our children are being criminalised for being poor at alarming rates, instead of providing our families with culturally safe services, income support and adequate public housing,” said Ms Axleby.

These nation-wide issues have had solutions set out by many inquiries and reports, including the Northern Territory Royal Commission, the Royal Commission to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and Change the Record’s Free to Be Kids: National Plan of Action.

For media comment please contact Roxanne Moore, Change the Record Principal Advisor, at 0409 711 061 or roxanne@changetherecord.org.au.

Change the Record’s “Free Our Future: Don’t Punish Poverty” is a petition to end mass-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by fixing laws and policies that punish people living poverty.

Change the Record’s Free to Be Kids: National Plan of Action is available here.

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