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Push for youth justice reform

News

Cite as: March 2014 88 (03) LIJ, p.23

National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell is calling for an end to the “lock them up” mentality.

As she marks her first year as National Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell has vowed to continue her efforts to give Australia’s young people a voice and to push for radical changes to the youth justice system.

Ms Mitchell called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 12, an end to the “lock them up” mentality and resources to support children at a much younger age and to tackle the over representation of Aboriginal children in the juvenile justice system.

“It is very worrying for me that the incarceration of children is not always seen as a last resort,” Ms Mitchell told the LIJ.

“Being in detention generally doesn’t do children any good and in fact often entrenches criminal identities and associations and may even contribute to recidivism. There is no evidence that locking children up changes their behaviour. In a sense that’s a political phenomenon rather than an intervention based on evidence.

“We don’t want to be breeding young criminals and my fear is that by locking people up that’s all you are doing. You are sending them to criminal school.”

Ms Mitchell said she was worried about reports of youths being held in solitary confinement or being placed in custody with adults, pointing out the long term damage.

Former LIV president Michael Holcroft has highlighted the case of a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy who was kept in solitary confinement 22 hours per day for more than three months at the maximum security Charlotte Unit at Port Philip Prison after he tried to escape from youth detention.

Mr Holcroft has called for judicial review of youth transfers to adult prisons including the mandatory investigation and review of any case where the Youth Parole Board has recommended that a young person be transferred to adult prison; funding to deal with offenders to avoid such transfers altogether; and an amendment to the Children’s Youth and Families Act 2005 to ensure the best interests of the child are considered.

The LIV is preparing to make a submission to the Victorian government on youth transfers to adult prisons.

Ms Mitchell called for early intervention at primary schools to help support children who are showing signs of disengagement or being damaged by alcohol, drug and violence problems at home.

“We really need to be identifying kids at risk earlier before they come into contact with the juvenile justice system,” Ms Mitchell said.

She also called for a ramping up of the “justice reinvestment” approach in Aboriginal communities, where a portion of public funds normally spent on law and order is directed to community programs that tackle the underlying problems of crime, dislocation and disengagement. “In every area where children are vulnerable Aboriginal children are particularly vulnerable,” she said.

One of Ms Mitchell’s first priorities when she was appointed in March 2013 was to conduct a national listening tour, dubbed the Big Banter, and she was surprised to find children across all social groups exhibited high levels of anxiety about their safety.

“They were particularly worried about the levels of violence and bullying and aggression in the community displayed by other children and adults,” Ms Mitchell said.

“These feelings of anxiety were pretty constant across all social groups and that did surprise me. It was frequently raised. Obviously kids who are in the care system or the juvenile justice system have more exposure to that and they are more concerned with being safe and having stable and trusted relationships with adults.”

There are more than 40,000 children in out of home care in Australia and these children are 15 times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

“If they are seeing a lot of unhealthy relationships around them a proportion of them are likely to model those unhealthy relationships and behaviours,” she said.

“You need to get down to some underlying issues here. Put greater support to families under stress. Support with financial and other help and to model good behaviour.”

Ms Mitchell said there also needs to be a national conversation about the images and ideas children experience through the internet, television, movies and video games.

“A lot of kids said they were anxious about what they come across on the internet by mistake. They would talk in terms of their younger brother or sister being exposed to such things,” she said.

Entering the second year of her five year term Ms Mitchell has set a number of new priorities. She will continue efforts to give the children of Australia a voice, a move that will ensure they feel engaged and consulted about policy development and law reform.

She will also push for more education programs around children’s rights and responsibilities and to address their anxieties about violence and personal safety.

Ms Mitchell will also advocate more research and data collection on the policies that affect children and their rights.

Her office will continue to work with community groups who are taking part in justice reinvestment programs in Aboriginal communities and to advocate for the expansion of these programs.

Norrie Ross

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