The WA premier, Mark McGowan, has dismissed “activist” calls to raise the age of criminal responsibility, saying there was no need for further inquiries into juvenile detention in the state.
His comments come after Aboriginal advocates accused him of treating them with “contempt” after a crisis meeting on youth justice last week.
The WA government has been under sustained pressure over conditions in the state’s only youth justice centre, Banksia Hill, amid ongoing reports of self-harm, suicide attempts and the transfer of children as young as 14 to a separate wing within Casuarina men’s prison, a maximum security facility.
McGowan met with the state’s prisons inspector, Eamon Ryan, the corrections minister, Bill Johnson, the WA children’s commissioner, Jacqueline McGowan-Jones, and the Wungening Aboriginal Corporation CEO, Daniel Morrison, among others, last week, amid allegations of excessive force and ongoing reports of young children in detention facing long lockdowns and solitary confinement.
Morrison, a Noongar and Yamatji man, labelled the meeting a failure and said the premier was treating Aboriginal leaders with “contempt” and described the meeting as a media “stunt”.
“It’s difficult to see the summit as anything but a stunt, where the premier tried once again to control the media message around this issue,’ Morrison said.
“If he had put half as much energy into actually fixing the issues, we would all be in a better place, including the children without a voice.”
“The premier continues to treat us with contempt,” he said.
“The children who are locked up for over 20 hours a day deserve better. He must do better. We cannot see a child in custody die.”
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In a joint statement Morrison, along with child researcher Dr Fiona Stanley and the Aboriginal Advisory Council chair, Gail Beck, who also attended the summit, called on the WA government to establish a “truth-telling and accountability inquiry” after footage of children being restrained using “folding up” measures was aired by the ABC and the West Australian.
They want a taskforce of Aboriginal leaders, experts and the state government to overhaul the youth justice detention centre and raise the age of criminal responsibility.
“Aboriginal people must be leading solutions for Aboriginal communities. This must be central to all we do from now on,” the statement read.
On Monday McGowan said the meeting was “positive” and rejected calls for any further inquiries. He said enough work had already been done.
“The meeting was constructive … and we’ve responded very positively … I don’t think there’s a need for any further inquiries. The meeting the other day, everyone had the opportunity to say what they had to say,” McGowan said.
He rejected “activists” calls to increase the age of criminal responsibility.
“[Some] people think that, for instance, up to the age of 14, there should be no criminal responsibility. I just disagree that when you’re 13 should actually be able to murder someone or commit a sexual assault with no consequence. I just disagree with that.”
He said the WA government is balancing public safety while also funding programs and initiatives to rehabilitate young people involved in the justice system.
“I want to protect the public and rehabilitate the detainees. Some of the activists really only believe in rehabilitation.”
The government announced $63m to improve services and facilities at the Banksia Hill detention centre including improving mental health supports.
The government has also pledged $15m for an on-country residential facility for young offenders as an alternative to detention in the Kimberley region.
The Department of Justice would not confirm whether “folding up” restraint was still a use of force option but said it is examining other methods.
“The Department of Justice has committed to adopting an alternative method of restraint as soon as practical,” a spokesperson said.
“A review of the methods used in other jurisdictions is currently under way. Any new method will necessarily safeguard both detainees and staff and will include appropriate training.”