Indigenous Australians make up half of those in youth detention with two-thirds yet to be sentenced, report finds

Data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration ‘an indictment on every state and territory’, advocate says

Half of all young people held in detention facilities in Australia are Indigenous and almost two-thirds have yet to be sentenced for a crime, new data shows.

It comes after a commitment by Australian governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, a move advocates and lawyers say does not go far enough to protect the most vulnerable children from the trauma of being incarcerated.

A report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), released on Tuesday, found that 72% of the more than 800 children and young people held in detention on an average night in the June quarter this year were unsentenced – meaning they were either remanded in custody while awaiting the outcome of a court case or held in custody by police.

It also found 50% of those in youth detention were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, despite Indigenous children making up just 6% of the 10-17 age cohort in the broader population.

Indigenous children were jailed at 20 times the rate of non-Indigenous children as of June 2021 and were also more likely to be jailed without being sentenced and more likely to be under the age of 18 when incarcerated, the report showed.

Advocates have been campaigning to raise the criminal age of responsibility in Australia to 14, a move which would see almost 500 fewer children detained in youth detention facilities each year. So far only the Australian Capital Territory has committed to raise the age to 14.

Sophie Trevitt from the Change the Record coalition said the data was “an indictment on every state and territory”.

“Children do not belong behind bars,” she said.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represent less than 6% of the total population, yet make up half of all children behind bars. This is a direct result of well-documented discrimination that First Nations children face from over policing right through to sentencing.

“The fact that almost three-quarters of children behind bars have not even been found guilty of a crime, and are simply waiting for their day in court, shows how incapable the criminal legal system is to administer justice in a humane and timely way.”

The AIHW data tracks trends in youth detention in the four years from June 2017 to June 2021. It found that 83% of those in a youth detention facility on an average night in the June quarter of this year were aged 10 to 17, while the rest were older – either as a result of the dual track system in Victoria or because they were incarcerated in connection to a crime they allegedly committed as a child.

Despite a dip in unsentenced children being jailed in the middle of 2020, in response to different court procedures put in place at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of children jailed on remand bounced back by the middle of 2021.

Executive director of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS), Jamie McConachie, said the figures were “absolutely staggering”.

“It is time for evidence-based and community-led solutions to create pathways away from jail to support our young people to succeed,” McConnnachie said.

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“First and foremost, Australian governments must commit to raising the age of legal responsibility to end the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.”

Indigenous children were consistently jailed at a higher rate than non-Indigenous children, the report showed, but the rate of over-incarceration varied from 16 times more likely to be jailed up to 25 times.

The rate of children held in detention without being sentenced also bounced around, averaging out at a rate of two children per 10,000. The overall number of children and young people in detention on an average night fell from 958 in the June quarter of 2017 to 819 in the June quarter of 2021.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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