Queensland’s juvenile justice system is ‘in crisis’ amid human rights abuses, warns Children’s Commissioner

Queensland is systematically violating human rights by locking up more children in police custodial homes, Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner has said.

Anne Hollonds also believes that governments waste money on youth justice measures that do not make the community safer.

His criticism of Queensland – as well as other states using similar practices – puts further pressure on Palaszczuk’s government to put human rights concerns ahead of a “tough on crime” line.

As the government plans to build a fourth juvenile detention center in Queensland – potentially in Cairns – Commissioner Hollonds has said a new facility is not the solution to youth crime.

“Evidence shows that locking up children does not reduce delinquency, in fact it has the opposite effect that time spent in prison actually leads to more time spent in prison,” she said.

“I think we’re wasting public money on approaches that don’t ensure community safety and I think politicians have to take responsibility for that.”

Children left with adult detainees

Locking children in police watch houses is a violation of human rights, Commissioner Hollonds said.(ABC News: Marc Smith)

It comes as the ABC can reveal new details about the legal challenge brought by three youngsters who claim their stay in a Queensland Police watchhouse violated their human rights.

The trio – aged 14, 16 and 18 – claim their stay at the Cairns police custody house exceeded two days and the children were not completely separated from the adult detainees.

It is being dealt with in Queensland Civil and Administrative Court as a representative action, meaning the outcome could impact the continued use of custodial homes for other young people.

While declining to comment on this ongoing court case, Commissioner Hollonds said watch houses in general were “not places for children”.

“Locking children up in police custodial houses is a violation of many human rights conventions. It should never happen,” she said.

“The fact that this is happening is a sign that our systems have failed.”

In September, ABC’s 7:30 show revealed that Queensland’s Public Guardian’s Office had filed several complaints in 2021-22 with the department and police on behalf of children who had experienced prolonged stays in nursing homes. surveillance.

A woman leans on a desk.  A sign behind her reads 'Youth Advocacy Centre'
Katie Acheson recalled a case with a mentally ill teenager kept in a supervised home for days without treatment.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

Katie Acheson, outgoing CEO of the Youth Advocacy Centre, recalled a 16-year-old girl who had been deemed unfit to stand trial due to complex mental health issues stemming from trauma.

“She was not released on bail, and so she was held in the custody house for six days and during that time she did not have access to her treatment,” she said at 7:30 a.m. .

“We saw an immediate deterioration in her mental health, and when she came out she was significantly affected by six days of trauma basically.”

Calls to fund measures that “actually work”

ABC’s Four Corners revelations in 2019 showed children had been held for weeks in adult custodial homes – including one in solitary confinement for 23 days – prompting the Queensland government to remove most of the children. children from police watch houses.

But that changed when a wave of deaths last year sparked a massive crackdown on youth crime, including reversing the presumption of bail for some serious offences.

Since then, the government has come under increasing pressure from victims of crime and the opposition to get tougher.

Commissioner Hollonds said she fully understands the community’s outrage and fear over youth crime.

“It is simply not acceptable for these incidents to occur and cause tremendous harm to individuals and the community,” she said.

“[But] what we need to do is sit down and practice – how can we stop this?

“The good news is that there are things we can do that work better to reduce crime and keep the community safe.

“It’s a job we have to do across the country, frankly, to make sure we’re putting our money into things that actually work.

“That is, reforming the upstream care and support systems that will really help children stay connected in school and grow well in the community.

“These basic public systems that are supposed to help families raise their children safe and healthy need to be reformed because they are currently not fit for purpose.”

She also said she was concerned about prison conditions, which caused more harm to children who already had pre-existing disabilities, trauma and mental health issues.

Queensland Labor MP Leanne Linard speaks to the media in Brisbane.
Youth Justice Minister Leanne Linard said “more young people are being detained and longer” in Queensland.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

In a statement, Queensland Youth Justice Minister Leanne Linard said the state had the “toughest” bail laws for serious juvenile repeat offenders, meaning “more than young people are detained and longer”.

She said the government remained “firmly committed to community safety” and forecasts indicated more permanent infrastructure would be needed.

A fourth youth detention center ‘inevitable’ in the face of rising numbers of detainees

Cairns is one of several sites across the state being considered as a possible location for another youth detention facility.

Commissioner Hollonds said the construction of another facility was the ‘inevitable result’ of tougher youth bail laws.

The Cleveland Youth Detention Center in Townsville in North Queensland in 2016.
Cleveland Youth Detention Center in Townsville is one of three youth detention centers in Queensland.(ABC: Brant Cumming)

“There’s also a feeling that the community wants their children to be closer to them and not have to go down to Brisbane, for example,” she said.

“It makes sense to me that this could be a way forward, but it is not a solution to the problem of juvenile delinquency in Queensland.

“What we should be doing instead of building more youth detention centers is investing the money in preventing youth crime, reducing delinquency rates and keeping the community safe.”

There is growing pressure on the youth detention system with an increasing number of detainees.

As of 6am on Monday October 31, there were 291 young people in Queensland youth detention centres.

Among them, 195 were indigenous.

The government was unable to say how many of the current total number of young detainees were under child protection orders, but the latest data as of June 30 showed that 86 of the 270 young detainees had then an active prescription.

There were also 34 children in police watch houses as of Tuesday 1 November.

Neither the police nor the government said how long each had been there, but a Queensland police spokesperson said the youngsters were held for an average of 1.8 days.

The spokesperson said “where and when a youth is transferred from a custodial home to a youth detention center is entirely at the discretion” of the department.

They also said the youths were separated from all the other prisoners.

Ms Linard said the youths were being held as part of normal processing, including arranging transportation to a youth detention center, and that her department is “working closely with the police to ensure that young people are not detained in custodial homes longer than necessary”.

“We are locking up more children”

A person in shadow walks through a caged inner courtyard covered in more shadows.
There are around 291 young people in Queensland youth detention centres, of which 195 are Indigenous.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Lawyers said they continue to see youths in detention and guard homes for long periods of time and will continue to seek their deportation.

Commissioner Hollonds agreed that regular and consistent public reporting of data about children in juvenile detention and in brothels was important.

“If it is not possible to get regular updates on the number of children held in custodial homes and detention centers, there is a problem,” she said.

“There should be transparency about it.”

“Particularly now because we’re locking up more children because of tougher bail laws. [so] it is even more important.

“Otherwise, we can’t say that we’re actually able to make sure, as a community, that these children get the care they need.”

She said youth detention was in a “state of crisis” across the country and governments needed to work together to reform the system and reduce delinquency rates.

“I hope they will have the political will to look this problem head on, together with their colleagues in all jurisdictions, and now reform the way we deal with youth crime,” she said.

Ms Linard said there was “encouraging progress” through programs including restorative justice lectures, case management, a bail support service, initiatives that engage young people to school or in training and teams of co-workers.

“However, we know that a group of serious repeat offenders cause disproportionate harm in the community – they make up a significant proportion of young people in custody,” she said.

The government is also still considering the findings of former Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson’s biannual review of the government’s youth justice reforms.

Ms Linard said the report, along with the next youth justice action plan, would be released soon.