Australia: Reforms to justice system essential to protect the rights of Indigenous youth
Major reforms must be undertaken by the authorities in the Australian state of Queensland to protect the rights of Indigenous children from a youth justice system that criminalizes them out of all proportion to the general population, a new Amnesty International report says today.
The report Heads Held High: Keeping Queensland kids out of detention, strong in culture and community will be launched at Parliament House, Brisbane today.
“While the Queensland authorities have recognized the need for reform, much more needs to be done. In particular, a shift to supporting Indigenous-led initiatives could make a significant difference to prevent another generation of Indigenous children from being lost behind bars,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Senior Research Adviser for South East Asia and the Pacific.
The eastern Australian state of Queensland continues locking up 10- and 11-year-olds and detaining children on remand, in clear breach of international law and standards. The majority of the detained children are indigenous from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities due to the historical discrimination the authorities have failed to address.
“For decades, Indigenous children have been ensnared by a criminal justice system that frequently contravenes the principles of juvenile justice and constantly overlooks the best interest of the child,” said Champa Patel.
“While recent steps taken by the Queensland authorities have been encouraging, our report released today starkly illustrates how much more still needs to be done.”
By supporting Indigenous-led initiatives, Amnesty International’s research found, the Queensland authorities could put in place a youth justice system that is in line with Australia’s obligations under international law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
At the moment, only one of the 16 organizations funded by the Queensland’s government to work with children in conflict with the law is an Indigenous-led organization. The statistic is brought into sharp relief by the fact that Indigneous children in Queensland are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and are 22 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous children.
In the case of girls, the statistic is even more alarming, with Indigenous girls 33 times more likely to find themselves in the youth justice system than non-Indigenous girls.
Queensland also has the highest rate in Australia of holding children on remand – on any given day, as many as 83 percent are being held in detention without bail, whether prior to court proceedings or prior to sentencing. Two thirds of them are Indigenous children.
Under international law and standards, children should be released from pre-trial detention as soon as possible, and should only ever be detained as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
In addition, Queensland remains the only Australian state to still try 17-year-old teenagers as adults and hold them in harsh adult prisons.
“Our report summarizes the different practices that Australian civil society, including Indigenous-led organizations, that are working on this issue. Their work gives the Queensland authorities the opportunity to break with a past that unfairly discriminates against Indigenous communities. Instead the authorities now have the opportunity to be part of a solution that charts a more promising future for children,” said Champa Patel.
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