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Australia Juvenile detention centre report urges less isolation, more activities for offenders

21:00  29 october  2019
21:00  29 october  2019 Source:   abc.net.au

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Andrew Johnson describes them as "ordinary kids".

But there is one key difference — they're locked up.

The former aid worker has spent the past four years interviewing 260 children and young people in NSW's juvenile detention centres.

He is set to release a major report today, urging the NSW Government to invest more in centres so children can spend more time out of cells and engaged in activities.

"They're our nieces, our nephews, our next-door neighbours," he says.

"What's different is that they have gone through extraordinary circumstances."

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As the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People, Mr Johnson occupies an independent role providing advice to Parliament.

On his tours of the centres, he heard many complaints of too much time spent on lockdown, with children kept in what he calls "quite small rooms".

"I think it would shock some members of society to see actually what their rooms look like," he says.

The children — many of whom have mental health problems and histories of abuse — commonly told him they did not want to be left alone with their thoughts for too long.

Too often they are missing out on psychological help or activities in the evening, on weekends and during school holidays, the report finds.

"There's too many lockdowns," one young person said.

"Once in the morning after breakfast, then before lunch, and after lunch, two hours or something, then before dinner, then after dinner."

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Mr Johnson said Juvenile Justice was taking steps to reduce isolation but needed to invest more in staff and programs to make that happen.

His recommendations include raising the age of criminal responsibility from age 10 to 14, which would bring NSW into line with many other countries around the world.

He has also called for more flexible bail conditions so children with unstable housing would not be detained unnecessarily for breaches.

Long school suspension impact

One of the biggest issues young people in custody raised was interruptions in their schooling.

Last year, 12,355 students in NSW received long suspensions of up to 20 days.

More than a quarter of them were Indigenous.

"I got suspended like all the time, the longest was 65 days," one young person said.

Another said: "When you're suspended from school you've got nothing else to do [but] walk the streets.

"Mum and that wasn't there for us … Kicking us out of school is basically telling us to go do what we want."

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Research from the US and Australia points to a "school-to-prison pipeline" where suspension leads to marginalised young people who are more likely to commit crimes.

Aboriginal child welfare body AbSec chief executive Tim Ireland said the rate of long school suspensions "should be alarming" the NSW Government.

He said it should focus on "giving Aboriginal young people something to do within the community that's positive and keeps them connected."

The Australian Institute of Criminology called for an overhaul of the current approach back in 2017.

That was echoed last September when a NSW parliamentary inquiry recommended the abolition of unsupervised school suspensions.

But more than a year later, the NSW Education Department is still reviewing its policies.

On Tuesday, Community Services Minister Gareth Ward announced a raft of new measures in response to the Frank Baxter centre riot in July, including security upgrades, new detainee classifications and high-risk units.

"Our Government's success in diverting young people away from the system has resulted in a 40 per cent decrease in detainees over the last decade," Mr Ward said.

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Criminal justice system 'quicksand'

Mr Johnson has praised the government's diversionary work but Indigenous incarceration remains drastically high.

Forty-eight per cent of detainees are Indigenous, a parliamentary estimates hearing was told in September, even though Indigenous people make up 3.5 per cent of the NSW population.

Indigenous interviewees told Mr Johnson that they responded better to programs in school and in custody led by members of their own community.

"We need to stop them before they get caught up in the quicksand of the criminal justice system," said Karly Warner, chief executive of the Aboriginal Legal Service, NSW/ACT.

Ms Warner has backed calls in Mr Johnson's report to expand the specialist Youth Koori Court and invest more in Aboriginal-controlled programs for children.

"When you are ripping children away from their families and communities and placing them in danger, in Juvenile Justice settings or prisons, you are removing them from their key cultural protective factor."

At the end of his interviews with children and young people in Juvenile Justice, Mr Johnson says "what's most striking is that they're wanting to get their life back on track."

"They're saying, 'you know what, I want as much help as I can get', and all we need to do is to respond to that."

As one young person told him: "We've got to learn from our mistakes. I'd just like us to have more opportunities."

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