How to make a criminal: send a child to youth detention

The younger a child is slapped with a probation order or locked up for committing a crime, the more likely they are to return behind bars.

So when Queensland brought in laws allowing kids as young as 10 to be held in police watch houses, human rights groups were appalled.

Indigenous advocates were also alarmed given the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the youth justice system.

Catherine Liddie, the head of a national organisation for Indigenous children known as SNAICC, said the Queensland government action was a disgrace.

"Suspending the Human Rights Act so children as young as 10 can be held in police watch houses and prisons designed for adults is utterly shameful," she said.

"It makes a mockery out of all the work that we've been doing to close the gap, which says to work in partnership with Aboriginal community controlled organisations before you make decisions like this."

Queensland Youth Justice Minister Di Farmer said the government introduced the legislation to address a "technical error" in orders being made for young people going into detention, which was highlighted in a Supreme Court case.

She said the change would ensure a "business as usual" approach.

"The government sought and acted on the advice of the solicitor general to ensure 30 years of established practice and process could continue," she said.

Ms Farmer said the Palaszczuk government was investing more than $446 million in early intervention and diversion programs.

"However, young people who offend will be held accountable, which is why we have the toughest youth justice legislation in the nation," she said.

"This government makes no apologies for giving police and the courts the tools needed to ensure community safety.”

When children are found guilty of an offence, the courts have several sentencing options.

The child can receive an unsupervised sentence like a good behaviour bond, or a supervised sentence, either in the community or a youth detention centre.

The younger a person is at the start of their first supervised sentence, the more likely they are to receive another one before the age of 18.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found 90 per cent of children aged between 10 and 12 when handed their first supervised sentence copped a second one before they reached adulthood.

Ms Liddle said decades of research showed the best way to create an adult criminal was to lock up a child.

"Whether it's juvenile justice or, in the long run, adult incarceration rates, that pipeline is almost inescapable," she said.

"Not enough is being done to address the underlying drivers."

The issue of sending children to adult prisons has also raised human rights concerns in Western Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

Both the NT and WA moved kids to adult prisons following riots at youth detention centres in the past two years.

The United Nations has long voiced concerns about Australia's age of criminal responsibility and the over-representation of Indigenous children in youth justice.

It has also criticised children not being separated from adults in detention.

Many young people in juvenile detention have learning disabilities and development issues.

Mali Hermans from the First Peoples Disability Network said it was "deeply disturbing" watch houses were being used to detain young people.

"Watch houses are not safe for any child, let alone those who have disability related needs," she said.

"Instead of ensuring access to early disability diagnosis and positive, culturally responsive supports, the Palaszczuk government seems content with entrenching pathways into prison for children and young people.”

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found Indigenous children typically entered youth justice at younger ages than their non-Indigenous peers.

The institute found two in three children given a supervised sentence did not receive a second one, but 55 per cent of Indigenous young people did.

Young people in detention were much more likely than those handed community-based orders to receive another supervised sentence and more than a third of children who received a supervised sentence were Indigenous.

The vast majority of these First Nations young people received community-based supervision orders, with 55 per cent handed another supervised sentence.

Of the First Nations children who went into detention, 62 per cent returned to sentenced supervision before the age of 18.

About eight per cent of Queenslanders aged 10 to 17 are First Nations and yet at least two thirds of the state’s youth prison population on any given day is Indigenous.

Queensland Council of Social Service chief executive Aimee McVeigh called on the state government to commit to a comprehensive early intervention program so there was an alternative for children under the age of 14.

"Instead of doing what works - working with the community to provide intensive support and services to young children and families to deal with the root cause of problematic behaviour - they are locking up children as young as 10 years old," she said.

Debbie Kilroy from advocacy group Sisters Inside said the Queensland government was concerned about its political future, not community safety.

“Legislation that allows the prolonged caging of children in watch houses and adult prisons will ensure harm for all the children and the community for generations to come," she said.

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

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